When Law Enforcement Meets COVID-19

Chad Stephens, a UAPD officer, has worked with UAPD since October 2006. 

As so many aspects of normal life have changed from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, from face masks to social distancing, law enforcement officers have had to make significant changes as well.

The University of Alabama Police Department (UAPD) is no different.

Chad Stephens, a UAPD officer, has worked with UAPD since October 2006, and previously worked with the Tuscaloosa sheriff’s office. He said COVID-19 has definitely presented challenges for him and the other officers. Yet, some of these challenges are ones that the officers have previously been prepared for. 

“We are kind of used to the separation [of social distancing]. We call it a reactionary gap, and it is used as an officer safety tool,” he said. 

This would mean leaving enough distance between yourself and another person to give yourself ample time to react in the event of a sudden threat. This particular aspect of police training is conducive to social distancing, as well as safety. 

However, other issues that UAPD are facing have been unprecedented, like the mask mandate. 

Stephens said although the masks are necessary, they can also “muffle voices. So it starts to be frustrating for both parties when it becomes necessary to ask someone to repeat something several times.” 

This can lead to miscommunication and exasperation, but the masks must stay on to keep everyone safe. This presents a unique challenge because not only can masks lead to miscommunications, UAPD has found that COVID-19, in general, has hindered them from being as involved in the community as they’d like.  

UAPD prides itself on being community-oriented, which is hard to prioritize when community events are few and far between. 

“I miss the interactions between students and members of the community, but also amongst coworkers,” Stephens said. “At the beginning of every shift, we would have what we would call a muster. That’s where we are all in a room together, going over the daily activities and recent happenings. Since COVID hit, we haven’t been able to be as close with one another, and that’s something I am really looking forward to once all this blows over.”

Stephens said even though his position interacts heavily with people he does not feel more at risk of COVID-19. 

He said UAPD is “wearing [their]masks, socially distancing, sanitizing and following University, state and CDC guidelines,” and he feels “just as safe at work as [he does] going to the grocery store or going out to eat.” 

UAPD prides itself on being community-oriented, but with the struggle of COVID-19, it has been hard to do so.  

Yet, with COVID-19 vaccines now in distribution, Stephens and the rest of the department will have another layer of protection from the risk of the coronavirus. 

“I tested positive over the holiday break, so I have not gotten it yet,” Stephens said. “I have to wait ninety days, but when that is over, I will get the vaccination.”

Though precautions have been taken, some still fear for the safety of those in the line of duty. 

Assistant Police Chief Steve Rice of the Tuscaloosa Police Department has been working with the community for 24 years. He said he definitely feels more at risk because of his occupation. 

“If an offender doesn’t want to go to jail, we don’t have the option to maintain social distance,” he said. “Sometimes we have to restrain somebody or take them into custody. You put an offender in the backseat and sometimes they’ll choose to take their mask off. We don’t always have the option to not be potentially exposed.”

One UA sophomore nursing student that would like to remain anonymous said she believes her life has been impacted since the onset of the pandemic due to her father’s job as a police officer. 

“I’m definitely fearful for my dad. He has been putting his life on the line a lot recently, especially since COVID. He used to have more of a desk job, but since COVID, he has been out on the job on a lot more,” she said. “My dad is older. He is a middle-aged man. If he got COVID, he could get really sick. Plus, if he gets it, he could bring it home to me and my family. It’s something I worry about.”

Anonymous’s parents have become eligible for the vaccine and both elected to take it. 

“That makes me feel better, especially knowing how much my dad is interacting with the public on a day-to-day basis. Plus, I know his job is taking all the necessary precautions that they can right now,” she said.

Rice echoed Anonymous’s sentiment and said that the Tuscaloosa Police are taking every precaution to keep everyone in the community safe. 

“Every interaction we have has changed in our law enforcement. We have to worry about the safety of the public as well as the safety of our officers and the offenders,” Rice said. “Good things have come out of [the pandemic] too though. We have been able to transition a lot of things online, which will help going forward.” 

Rice has received the COVID-19 vaccine and estimates that, at the time of publication, 45% of the Tuscaloosa Police Department has as well. He said this has helped ease some of his worry and is looking forward to an eventual return to normalcy without masks or social distancing at the end of the pandemic. 

The University of Alabama Police DepartmentThe University Police Center is adapting to a new normal in the face of health and safety challenges, as they try to keep themselves, UA and the Tuscaloosa community safe.

The far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic touch almost every aspect of life. This definitely includes the jobs of the men and women who serve on police forces across the country. The law enforcement on campus and throughout the Tuscaloosa community is no exception. They are adapting to a new normal in the face of health and safety challenges, as they try to keep themselves, UA and the Tuscaloosa community safe.