Covid-19: The role of policing in recovery

Elsa Corry-Roake

Covid-19 is likely to stretch trauma and structural inequalities even further, putting extra strain on those relying on foodbanks, mental health services and youth and women’s centres. There is a huge risk that police services delivering the emergency legislation while using the old tactics will deepen problems. But there are practical steps the police service can take to support communities through the ongoing stress of a disaster and address trauma and structural inequalities that existed before it occurred.

Last week, we highlighted the way in which Covid-19 could exacerbate existing structural-inequalities and put people at greater risk of ‘revolving door’.

Some anecdotal evidence from police services, solicitors and charities highlight the issue. While there has been reports that knife crime has fallen in London and in the West Midlands since the lock down, other reports from our policing and voluntary sector partners suggest that the number of people taken into police custody has not significantly reduced since the lockdown. Children and young people are still being arrested for low level and non-violent offences, particularly minor drug offences, and it is ‘business as usual’ for weekend arrests too. We have also heard that children and young people who are arrested for domestic abuse return to their family homes (where it is not clear if they themselves are at risk, as well as posing a risk to others) in the absence of housing solutions and limited access to support services. We heard concerns from charities that care leavers and people from BAME backgrounds are being disproportionately affected.

We have an opportunity to do things differently. Here, we present New Orleans as a case study to show how we can support communities through the ongoing stress of a disaster, while addressing the structural inequalities that preceded it.

A case study: New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans provides an important example of a city historically wrought with challenges. Even before Hurricane Katrina, public schools were suffering, the murder rate was one of the highest in the US, there was vast economic disparity between black and white communities, and there was a long history of hostility between the police and communities.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought these challenges to a head. It destroyed large parts of New Orleans, killing nearly 2,000 people and leaving thousands more homeless. The people of New Orleans had to face abrupt and immediate changes to their lives. One study found that rates of mental ill-health had doubled in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Atlantic described how “mental illness flooded into New Orleans as Katrina’s waters receded”.

Hurricane Katrina caused particular upheaval to low income and black communities, as well as those with pre-existing mental ill-health. In other words, those already experiencing structural inequalities were hit the hardest. To illustrate this point, a study by Princeton University of 532 low-income mothers in New Orleans found that even four years after the hurricane, a third experienced PTSD, and a further third other psychological distress.

Trauma-informed public services

Hurricane Katrina did not create these societal inequalities, but its devastation exposed and laid them bare. As a result, New Orleans began to consider the rippling impact of trauma and inequalities on the city.

A study by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) revealed that children in New Orleans tested positive for PTSD at more than three times the national rate. The study also found that 52 per cent of students had been affected by homicide and about 40 per cent of participants lived below the poverty line. Additionally, Louisiana’s high incarceration rate meant that many children had a parent in prison. IWES said this highlighted how “untreated trauma is the underbelly of violence”.

These findings paved the way for trauma-informed schools. Trauma-informed schools are designed to support students who suffer with trauma or mental ill-health and whose behaviour can act as a barrier to their learning. Schools that adopted a trauma-informed approach in New Orleans saw a drop in suspensions, expulsions and physical aggression. Now, six New Orleans schools are part of Safe Schools NOLA which is in the process of studying the positive impact that trauma-informed schools are having on staff attitudes and behaviour as well as on student outcomes and school safety.

Smarter policing solutions

Following the wave of positive results from trauma-informed approaches, New Orleans Police Department adopted a trauma-informed approach to policing. The programme trains police officers to recognise where offences have been driven by underlying issues including trauma, addiction and mental ill-health. Police services are equipped to divert individuals into the appropriate community-based, harm-reduction interventions that take a trauma-informed approach and help people to access a range of support services, treatment programmes and housing solutions.

Crucially, the new approach responds to the specific context of New Orleans. It recognises the housing needs caused by Hurricane Katrina as well as the high level of addiction caused by the opioid epidemic, which began before the hurricane and has persisted after it. This also recognises how the opioid epidemic and consequently the justice system has disproportionality affected black communities.

From New Orleans to England

New Orleans is now one of the national epicentres of the Covid-19 pandemic, devastating an already deeply traumatised city. It is also not surprising that the city is already planning its recovery post Covid-19 recommending that response and recovery efforts should address “trauma at individual, interpersonal and community levels”.

A smart response to Covid-19 is reflecting on trauma and structural inequalities and their impact on criminal justice. It is now time policing considers investing in diversion, ensuring that people can address and receive support for the root causes of offending. This will save considerable resources in the future, and for now, it will save lives.

We will continue to talk to people with lived experience of the revolving door and police services up and down the country to move this agenda forward. Next week we’ll be launching a new evidence briefing on young adults entering the revolving door. We would love to hear your views. Join the conversation on Twitter @RevDoors #NewGenPolicing or write to us at