A third of FCPD officers considered leaving during pandemic, new report says

A Fairfax County police SUV with lights on (file photo)

A new report on COVID-19’s impact on policing found some dissatisfaction among officers with how the Fairfax County Police Department responded to the pandemic, along with a significant decrease in community engagement.

Made public earlier this month, the report looked into the pandemic’s impact on policing in Fairfax County. The study was a partnership between the police department and George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (GMU-CEBCP).

Sworn officers gave FCPD “relatively lower ratings” for its overall Covid response, highlighting a “perceived unfairness” and inconsistency in how the department dealt with leave policies, remote work, and adherence to mask-wearing, vaccinations, and social distancing.

Because of those concerns and a “negative reaction to broader local and national criminal justice issues,” more than a third of sworn officers who responded to surveys expressed interest in leaving the force after the first year of the pandemic, the report says.

“This sentiment was more pronounced in non-White or Hispanic officers and those more likely to experience work-related or personal stress during the initial months of the pandemic and one year later,” the report said.

There were also initial challenges in the department with obtaining personal protective equipment and a “lack of data, data sharing, and communication,” per the report.

“One additional challenge noted in the open-ended survey responses and some interviews was that there was no communication mechanism to reach every officer in the FCPD quickly,” the report said.

FCPD’s public affairs bureau told FFXnow by email that the “law enforcement profession has been facing retention and recruitment challenges for several years, but these challenges are not isolated to Fairfax County or the pandemic.”

Under a personnel emergency since August, the department noted that the county has made some effort to correct staffing issues in recent months, approving a one-time hazard pay bonus of $2,000 and “pandemic appreciation leave” for employees who couldn’t take leave during 2020.

In general, though, the report suggests low morale over the last several years had less to do with Covid than with fallout from George Floyd’s murder and the resulting nationwide protests in the summer of 2020.

“Although not confirmed by survey data, interviewees suggested that morale was impacted much more by Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests against the police than by COVID,” it reads.

The study found some faults with how police have dealt with the public and handled “crime and disorder,” pointing to a reduction of “in-person community-policing activities” and a shift towards handling calls remotely.

While somewhat unavoidable, the report says some of the public “felt that service provided remotely was less effective,” and the department has been “slow” to return to the normal levels of community policing activity.

When asked about this, FCPD referenced a 2021 survey that was publicly released this past August that noted “most” of those who responded to the survey “were satisfied with the Fairfax County Police Department” and that more people think FCPD does a better job communicating than in 2015.

The report says county police struggled to adapt to a well-documented increase in mental health calls, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. FCPD said it is working to address this challenge.

“With the support of the Sharon Bulova Center for Community Health, FCPD has expanded our co-responder program, which allows for clinicians to respond with officers to mental health calls for service,” the department told FFXnow.

The report noted that changes in people’s everyday routines early on in the pandemic altered “many longstanding calls for service and crime patterns.” The county saw a “significant decline” in service calls overall as well as specific types of calls, particularly traffic crashes and deaths.

Similar service call patterns and staffing challenges have been reported in other law enforcement agencies across the country, according to the report.

The report praised the department for “quickly” implementing strategies to keep officers safe from Covid, such as using the “existing infrastructure of a health safety unit to quickly implement infectious disease control.”

“Like all professions, law enforcement was not immune to the pandemic. We value the GMU study and the recommendations they provided,” the FCPD said.

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