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Did COVID-19 Change the Way Police Interact With Citizens?

To look at how the pandemic affected the way people, particularly those in marginalized communities, interact with law enforcement, researchers analyzed arrest rates in U.S. cities pre- and post-lockdown.

Two police arrest a protestor wearing a face mask in Los Angeles.
Shutterstock/Matt Gush
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data, and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight a project that assessed neighborhood racial disparities in arrests after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in Boston, Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

MetroLab Network’s Josh Schacht spoke with Jaquelyn Jahn, postdoctoral scholar at CUNY Graduate Center; Jessica Simes, assistant professor of sociology at Boston University; and Tori Cowger and Brigette Davis, both doctoral students at Harvard University who worked on the project.

Josh Schacht: What is the overarching challenge you are addressing and who is involved?

Jessica Simes: We wanted to understand how the conditions of the pandemic may have affected the ways people interacted with police. Prior research has demonstrated large racial disparities in exposure to police contact and arrests at the neighborhood level, but what happens when cities shut down? Do those racial disparities go away? Jackie and I worked with a team of researchers to scour city websites for data on police arrests and found data for Boston, Charleston, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Our goal was to study how pandemic conditions impacted policing in a diverse set of urban neighborhoods.

Schacht: What is the relationship between police contact and urban health equity, especially within marginalized/minority communities?

Jaquelyn Jahn: Marginalized communities, and communities of color in particular, are more heavily and aggressively policed. A growing body of research points to negative health consequences of frequent contact with police. For example, people who are more frequently stopped (and potentially searched) by police have higher levels of anxiety and psychological distress. There are also large racial inequities in rates of fatal police violence in many U.S. cities.

Schacht: What data did you gather for this project and how did you analyze it?

Simes: A big part of this project is a data collection effort. We wanted to identify cities that had made arrest data available to the public and found three cities where data from 2019 and 2020 was available. We requested the same data from the Boston Police Department, and they provided it to us. This data will be made publicly available so other researchers can explore trends across time and neighborhoods, and include the location of every arrest in these four cities from 2019 through most of 2020. This allows us to study changes across seasons and before and after stay-at-home orders were enacted in March 2020.

Schacht: What are some of the most interesting or surprising insights you recorded in the course of your research?

Jahn: I was surprised to see a profound decline in arrests immediately after stay-at-home orders were put in place. For example, in the maps of Boston, even the areas that are the darkest (had the highest arrest rates) pre-stay-at-home order lightened after those orders. We saw general declines across all arrest types. This could be because of social distancing and changes to police activity, where police made fewer arrests in large part because fewer people were outdoors and engaging in public activities. However, our most meaningful finding in my opinion is that despite these huge declines, we don’t see any change in the racial gap in rates of arrest across Black and white neighborhoods. Indeed, arrest rates in Black neighborhoods during the pandemic remained higher than the pre-pandemic arrest rates in white communities.
heat map showing arrest rates in various Boston neighborhoods pre- and post-COVID stay-at-home orders
Tori Cowger
Schacht: In your white paper, you mention directing health compliance away from police to non-punitive institutions and community public health approaches; do you have thoughts about what these institutions and approaches should be?

Jahn: Police are called upon to respond to a wide range of health emergencies, including incidents of acute psychiatric distress, drug overdose and enforcing social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the potential health harms of police contact, the American Public Health Association has released guidelines on how to address these health emergencies without relying on police. These include decriminalization and community-based alternatives that promote public safety, such as violence intervention and restorative justice. These guidelines also suggest investing in governmental programs that promote healthy communities and reduce structural inequities, because these can help prevent health emergencies from happening in the first place.

Schacht: Based on your research, what is the singular most impactful policy change state governments can make to address the challenge of systemic racism in police contact post-pandemic?

Simes: The singular most impactful policy change state governments could make is to dramatically and permanently reduce the prison population. While our study focuses on cities and policing, police arrests are the front door to state prisons and local jails where people are at great risk for negative health effects. We believe that contact with the criminal justice system, particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic, leads to significant health harms that could be avoided if we significantly reduced the incarcerated population. The pandemic calls into question the ethical status of carceral institutions — and when the pandemic is over, those ethical questions will remain.
Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.