The coronavirus pandemic has made the last two months feel almost like an episode of the Twilight Zone. 42 states in the United States issued statewide stay-at-home orders by the end of April. All nonessential businesses closed their doors. Governers recommended their residents limit their trips outside the house to shopping for groceries and essentials.

In case times didn’t feel strange enough amidst the statewide shutdowns, the Philadelphia Police Department took things a step further. Danielle Outlaw, Police Commissioner for the city of Philadelphia, issued an announcement in March ordering the delay of all arrests for nonviolent crimes.

Commissioner Outlaw’s order ignited controversy throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Residents across the state panicked about the potential dangers of suddenly halting arrests. What does this mean for offenders and what does it mean for families trying to keep their children safe?

Understanding the Delayed Arrest Announcement

The police department’s announcement caused an understandable uproar from Pennsylvania residents. Families are trying to keep their kids safe during the frightening unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. They don’t want to worry about the additional danger of criminals avoiding arrest due to the department’s decision to delay them.

It’s easy to misunderstand the department’s announcement if you’re only reading headlines, though. The Philadelphia police department isn’t trying to let criminals and offenders take over the city and its surrounding areas. Commissioner Outlaw’s announcement was a proactive emergency response in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus in Pennsylvania.

Under normal circumstances, police officers arrest people who commit nonviolent crimes and then detain them in the jail system. When COVID-19 started spreading rapidly at the start of March, though, District Attorney Larry Krasner made the initial suggestion of delaying the detainment of nonviolent offenders.

Krasner suggested revising arrest policies surrounding low-level offenses to limit the spread of coronavirus. He was concerned not only for the health of those arrested but of the officers and other staff coming into contact with the detainees.

The department’s announcement didn’t cut back on all arrests, though. Commissioner Outlaw isn’t suggesting that officers allow everyone who commits a crime to get away with it. Instead, it lays out detailed instructions for officers to follow when making arrests during this time.

Criminals Aren’t Roaming the Streets

Pennsylvanians have enough to worry about without having to worry that people who might normally be arrested are freely roaming the streets. The announcement doesn’t mean the police in Philadelphia are turning a blind eye to crime. Officers aren’t allowing complete lawlessness to take over the streets.

All the announcement means is the department is restructuring the current approach to the arrest process. The temporary adjustments to the process apply only for a specific set of offenses such as:

  • All narcotics offenses
  • Vandalism
  • Prostitution
  • Economic crimes such as fraud or bad checks

The announcement also delayed arrests for all existing bench warrants. For the time being, officers will temporarily detain individuals who would normally be arrested for these crimes. Police will hold the individual for as long as they need to identify them and process any necessary paperwork.

Then the department will submit the collected paperwork and release the offender for the time being. Detectives in the detective division of the Philadelphia PD will overview all submitted paperwork. They’ll prepare arrest warrants for released offenders that will be served at a later date after the spread of the coronavirus slows.

Additionally, officers aren’t necessarily required to release every offender who comes through. They can notify their supervisor if they believe releasing a detained offender will pose a threat to the public. Supervisors will then determine the appropriate actions to take to maintain the safety of the general public.

Court Shutdowns and Existing Incarcerations

Philadelphia police department took its existing incarcerations into mind when making their decision. The statewide response to curb the spread of coronavirus included closing down the court system. This means anyone currently in the system could remain incarcerated indefinitely until the courts open up again.

Problems could arise if officers continue arresting and detaining nonviolent offenders while holding onto existing incarcerations indefinitely. Jail populations would quickly balloon and there wouldn’t be enough space to safely detain everyone. Maintaining proper social distancing of six feet wouldn’t be possible.

Overcrowded jail systems are already an issue. Add in the current situation with the coronavirus and the existing issue becomes a much bigger problem. If officers and staff members working at the jails become infected they won’t be able to go to work.

Keeping the people who oversee the safety of inmates healthy is a top priority. It’s not possible to limit their exposure if there’s a bottleneck in the local jail systems. Delaying arrests and issuing warrants in the meantime allows officers to remain as protected as possible during these unknown times.

Once officials find a way to limit the spread of the virus, the police department will be able to process the release of incarcerated individuals. As they clear out the existing system they can start following through on any outstanding warrants.

Benefits of Delayed Arrests During Coronavirus

The department is doing its best to maintain the safety of the public during these overwhelming times. There are still so many unknowns surrounding the coronavirus. Officials in Philadelphia want to remain diligent and do their best to stop the spread.

Although it may seem counterproductive, delaying arrests during coronavirus might help Philadelphia PD and the community at large. The new process limits the number of offenders detained at a time which they hope will contain any possible cases COVID-19. Limiting contact is an important part of keeping officers safe and healthy so they can continue their patrols.

Prosecutors will be busy processing the warrants as soon as they’re back and offenders are arrested. Krasner also mentioned that defendants who voluntarily surrender when they’re able to be processed through the courts and jails, may receive more favorable consideration regarding their sentencing.

Commissioner Outlaw summed up the main goal of restructuring the arrest process in a few sentences: “Our mission is to protect and promote the health and safety of our officers and the community we serve to the best of our abilities while continuing to discharge every aspect of our core duties.”