Before the current crisis in American policing reached its boiling point, the US was already struggling with overlapping public health challenges of COVID-19 and overdose. As calls mounted for rapidly depopulating correctional settings as part of pandemic response, frontline personnel in a growing number of jurisdictions were being instructed to limit arrests and other encounters with the public. Advocates had long urged shrinking the footprint of policing and criminal legal system based on racial justice, civil rights,  fiscal stewardship, and other considerations. Beyond a few notable exceptions, however, calls for reform had failed to gain real traction. In the age of COVID-19, public health and occupational safety concerns were prompting the rethinking about what elements of policing and other elements of the criminal legal system are truly essential. The killing of George Floyd and ensuing national protests against police brutality have completely shifted this landscape.

COVID-19—just like the overdose crisis and other public health challenges—sets the stage for criminal legal system net-widening, rather than shrinking. It is no accident that the legal term of art for public health authority is “police power:” public health measures often take authoritarian, carceral, and disciplinary forms. Shelter-in-place ordinances, business closures, curfews, and other measures to facilitate social distancing carry criminal penalties of months or years of incarceration. Police officers are enforcing orders to “flatten the curve” with increasing intensity, adding the risk of COVID-19 infection to the existing set of negative health sequelae of law enforcement encounters. Invariably, these enforcement actions target the most visible and vulnerable members of the public, including racial and ethnic minorities, the unhoused, and economically marginalized people. Prosecutors are also criminalizing the spread of COVID-19 and seeking unprecedented powers to detain individuals for unlimited periods of time.

It is imperative to ensure that US policing and other elements of the criminal legal system effectively respond to COVID-19. At the same time, we must challenge mounting carceral responses to this crisis. Ultimately, our North Star should be to use the clarity afforded by COVID-19 to facilitate sensible drug law reforms, encourage their sustainability, and to reimagine our criminal legal approaches through a public health lens.




Module I: Needle Stick Injury and Infection Risks

  • Key facts about risk of needlestick injury and infectious disease transmission

  • Occupational safety techniques and interactive skill-building on sharps handling

  • Laws and policies related to syringes

  • Standard operating procedures for responding to needlestick injury 


Module II: Overdose Scene Safety

  • Key facts about risk of field exposure to fentanyl and symptoms of opioid overdose

  • Occupational safety techniques for overdose prevention and skill-building on using naloxone

  • Standard operating procedures for overdose scene response


Module III: Workplace Wellness: Stress, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue

  • Key facts about risk of stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue

  • Occupational safety techniques for recognizing and addressing vicarious trauma and toxic stress

  • Key facts about treatment and supportive services that can reduce police workplace burden 

  • Standard operating procedures for deflecting individuals in need to treatment and supportive services



  1. Establish a formal working relationship between police and public health entities

  2. Collaboratively adapt curriculum to legal, cultural, geographical, and other elements of the jurisdiction working in partnership

  3. Train the trainers

  4. Model collaboration by featuring police and public health instructors in training delivery

  5. Build sustainable bridges between management and patrol officers and service providers

  6. Facilitate evaluation and analysis of training impact

  7. Provide technical assistance to assure the institutionalization and sustainability of the SHIELD model

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Missouri, DOTS Project
Pennsylvania, USA

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