National Guard to back up police efforts to enforce social distancing

National Guard personnel across the country could be activated on a state-by-state basis to help local law enforcement maintain social distancing and stay-at-home orders among the public, with the guard serving primarily as a visual force multiplier. Approximately 10,000 National Guard personnel have been activated across all 50 states, three U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to assist at drive-through testing sites and to provide food and transportation to those who need it during the pandemic. Those forces or the thousands of new additions expected to be activated in the coming weeks could be shifted to deal with crowd management or security, but guard officials warned that it is not up to them but the states and local agencies who request their assistance.

In the case of social distancing, local officials would have to determine that too many people are outside or congregating in public areas. The Guard itself does not propose to the governor how it could respond to potential civil unrest or people refusing to heed social distancing calls — it waits for requests from state-based agencies who need its help. '“Typically, when the requests come in, it’s done through a formal process. It’s either like a county — another agency they’re requesting a specific capability,” said Maj. Kurt Rauschenberg, director of public affairs for the Maryland National Guard. “The capability could be anything — it could be logistics, transportation, providing food. When the requests come in, we have to analyze it and figure out, ‘Is this something the Maryland National Guard can support? Is it legal for us to support?’” Once the Guard accepts a request and makes a plan to fulfill it, the governor must take the final step of activating it.

National Guard Bureau Gen. Joseph Lengyel said on Tuesday that personnel could help with social distancing by appearing beside local police and sheriff’s departments. “The way that scenario most likely works out is, they would be matched up with some civilian law enforcement agency that had jurisdiction or control over some particular parts that they were concerned about. And they may need to augment that with National Guard members rather than need more people, or maybe the force of police officers became less available to the community,” said Lengyel. “They would take their direction on what they were going to do and tell the people from whatever section they were going to. That has not happened yet, but, when we do civilian law enforcement, we generally do it under the control and in support of the local legal authorities in whatever community we're working it.”

In one recent example of the Guard helping local police with social distancing measures, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser activated the Guard last weekend to control crowds outside at the Tidal Basin where dozens of cherry blossom trees were in peak bloom and thousands flocked to see the trees. Guard personnel stood next to Metropolitan Police Department officers, who blocked streets and entrances to the area. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not issued a shelter-in-place directive, but he warned at a press conference on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic will worsen in the coming weeks and months.

Presently, 1,600 of the state’s 5,700 guard personnel are on duty. Rauschenberg pointed to the use of the Guard during the Baltimore riots in 2015, when they were brought in by local law enforcement for their presence. “The last time we brought out a guard presence this large — it’s no secret — was during the Baltimore riots, a very, very, very different situation,” said Rauschenberg.