Communicable disease policy in law enforcement

A communicable disease policy can protect your officers and keep them safe from a variety of airborne and bloodborne illnesses.

September 2, 2021

Article highlights

One of the (literally) unseen risks of being a police officer is the number of highly contagious diseases they could be exposed to during a normal encounter with a civilian or suspect. Whether it's performing an arrest, issuing a citation, or even talking with a group of people, you could unknowingly be exposed to different bacteria or viruses. That's why there needs to be a communicable disease policy in law enforcement agencies around the country.

According to the CDC and the IACP, a communicable disease is defined this way:

"Communicable disease" means an illness caused by an infectious agent or its toxins that occurs through the direct or indirect transmission of the infectious agent or its products from an infected individual or via an animal, vector, or the inanimate environment to a susceptible animal or human host.

These diseases can include both bloodborne and airborne illnesses like COVID-19, AIDS, Hepatitis A, B, and C, and tuberculosis (TB), to name just a few.

Healthcare workers, EMTs, and firefighters have their own communicable disease policy for their work. Police officers are in contact with the public just as frequently and closely. So each officer must understand how to protect themselves against airborne pathogens, blood, and other bodily fluids that can contain bloodborne pathogens.

This article will explain what a communicable disease policy is, why you need one for the workplace, and what should go into your department's policy.

What is a communicable disease policy?

A communicable disease policy determines how law enforcement personnel will perform their duties when dealing with people who might be carrying a communicable disease. It should also explain what the department will provide in training, information, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued their own model communicable disease policy which said:

It is the responsibility of this agency to ensure that its employees are able to perform their duties in a safe and effective manner. The safe performance of daily operations can be threatened by life-endangering communicable diseases. It shall be the policy of this department to provide employees with up-to-date training and information that will help minimize potential exposure while increasing employee understanding of the nature, risks, and routes of transmission of the diseases.

In short, it is a policy designed to protect law enforcement officers who deal with the public and put themselves at risk of contamination. It educates personnel about the different communicable diseases they could face, explains the dangers, and provides information on avoiding exposure.

Why is a communicable disease policy important in law enforcement?

Law enforcement officers interact with the public and deal with many different scenarios, whether it's a simple conversation, making an arrest, or subduing someone who is intoxicated or on drugs. Any of these people could have an infectious disease, and the more physical the engagement, the greater the risk.

Challenges specific to law enforcement as opposed to other industries or even other government agencies

One of the challenges that law enforcement officers face over most other government agencies and industries is their regular interaction with criminals, people with IV drug addictions, and people with mental illnesses.

The city of Lynchburg, Virginia was rather specific in who they considered being at risk for infection, which automatically excludes a lot of local and state government agencies:

Any employee who performs a job task in which it is reasonable to anticipate that they will have skin, eye, mucous membranes, or parenteral contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials will be included in training programs relating to occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens. . .

Similarly, as the IACP said in their model policy, anyone will be considered exposed if they have ". . . been bitten by a person, stuck by a needle, or who (had) direct physical contact with a potentially infected person or bodily fluids of an infected person, while in the line of duty."

Law enforcement officers often deal with people when they're at their lowest, which exposes them to any number of dangerous situations, including communicable diseases. A communicable disease policy can save officers from illness or death.

High-frequency interactions with community/citizens

Another reason for a communicable disease policy in the workplace is the frequency that law enforcement officers speak to the public: Officers in the field talk with civilians continually.

That means the risk of certain airborne illnesses, such as COVID-19, tuberculosis, influenza, and the common cold is a common issue. While many cities and states do not require masks, your communicable disease policy should address whether officers must wear face masks when dealing with the public, at least while COVID-19 is still a danger.

Officers also share close contact with suspects, especially during arrests, handcuffing, body searches, and even sharing squad cars. So not only are airborne illnesses a danger, but there are additional threats of being bitten, being jabbed with a needle, or facing exposure to blood or other bodily fluids. This puts officers at risk for diseases like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis A, B, and C.

So a communicable disease policy should also provide guidance on cleaning and disinfecting squad cars, using plastic mouthpieces when performing CPR, wearing protective eyewear if there's a danger of being splashed with bodily fluids, and supplies officers should have in their squad cars.

How to develop a communicable disease policy in law enforcement

Developing a communicable disease policy for your workplace works much like developing any other policy. You need a policy management team, you need buy-in from your leadership, and you should look at what other cities are doing.

In addition, your policy management team should consult with experts. Speak to your local hospital and EMT leaders and find out what their communicable disease policy is. Use any pertinent information in their policies, such as definitions, possible contagions, and even how they handle possibly infectious patients.

Finally, law enforcement does have a role to play in helping to manage public health emergencies, so your new policy may want to delve into those issues as well.

Review IACP standards, CDC/OSHA guidelines

You can also consult model policies like the IACP's. They have many different model policies you can use to create your department's policies. They're thorough, extensive, and answer many of the questions your policy management team may have.

It's also important to consult with CDC and OSHA guidelines since they may have a sample communicable disease policy for the workplace. Many of the city policies we've read have borrowed some language and information from the CDC and OSHA. Even our definition of a communicable disease above is from the CDC, which the IACP borrowed.

Finally, your policy should answer the question of whether your employees are required to get COVID vaccinations. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has declared that employers can require their employees to be vaccinated, there may be some pushback from officers and the police union. Even then, it's still possible to require masks for unvaccinated officers, especially if it becomes part of the dress code policy.

In July 2021, only 43% of the New York Police Department officers and civilian employees were vaccinated, and the NYPD began requiring vaccinations or masking of their entire city workforce, including police officers. (San Francisco and Washington D.C. issued similar requirements.)

Identify risks and transmissibility, develop policies to reduce spread

It's also important that your policy is updated regularly and identifies the different risks and possibilities of transmissibility. As we've seen with COVIDin the last two years, things can change quickly and drastically, and it doesn't help anyone to have a policy relying on out-of-date information.

We've had several pandemics and near misses in the last century, including the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, as well as training for the H5N1 influenza pandemic in 2006, not to mention the other influenza pandemics in the last 100 years. We've also seen several potentially-devastating illnesses that were caught early on and never reached a global spread, including SARS and two Ebola outbreaks in 2014 and 2021.

Since disease outbreaks can develop in a matter of days, it's important that your policy remains flexible so officers can quickly adapt to changes. It's also important to revisit the policy at least once a year (twice is better) and make any updates as they're warranted.

Provide and track training

Given the current pandemic crisis the world is facing, your workplace communicable disease policy will likely need regular updates to keep up with the latest best practices, scientific discoveries, and governmental mandates. Also, depending on what insurance companies begin doing, there may be changes to a department's insurance rates based on the existence of a policy.

That means showing proof that the policy has been read and signed by all affected personnel. Your department will need policy management software to indicate when a person has read the policy, track their signature, and collect them in a central repository so a policy manager can see how many people have read the policy by the deadline.

It will also help speed up the signature process if your officers have access to this policy – to the entire policy manual, in fact – from any mobile device or computer. They may have questions in the field, so they can't wait until they get back to the office to look it up.

And you will need to provide training and testing on these new policies and procedures, especially when there are new best practices, transmissibility issues, or new strains and diseases. Rather than gathering everyone into a large training room – which is not a good idea right now – it's important to allow all personnel access to training materials to review at their convenience, using their own mobile devices.

PowerDMS has helped law enforcement agencies create, develop, store, and manage their policy manuals. We provide the tools to help agencies create new policies, update them, and share information quickly and easily to comply with different accreditation agencies, laws, and policies. And we made a platform for trainers to upload training material to help employees learn about their policies.

Final thoughts

It's the job of every law enforcement agency to keep its officers safe by equipping them with the latest tools, technology, and training. That includes dealing with an unseen enemy like a highly contagious and deadly disease.

Creating a communicable disease policy for your law enforcement officers will equip them with that knowledge and training. They'll be better equipped to protect themselves from a whole host of possible diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, tuberculosis, influenza, and of course, COVID-19.

PowerDMS has worked for years to help police departments create policies such as take home vehicle policies, as well as active shooter situations, racial profiling, and police pursuits. Learn about 12 other policies your law enforcement agency should have in writing today.

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