After a reserve police officer in San Jose, California, tested positive for coronavirus last week, 20 of his colleagues were quarantined. Another 10 full-time employees from the police department’s family violence unit were also asked to stay home.
“You can imagine. Just this one incident could create an issue with regards to investigations of those real high-profile domestic violence, child abuse cases,” said Sgt. Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association.
Then there's the worst-case scenario, Kelly said, where the coronavirus pandemic depletes the police force of one of the largest cities in California. Police officials in San Jose and elsewhere warn that detectives, administrative and special operations staff may have to put on uniforms and respond to 911 calls, taking time away from major investigations.
Across the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has confronted police departments big and small with difficult questions about how to keep a functioning police force if fewer personnel are able to report to work. Worried that officers will fall sick, departments are urging officers to limit their interactions with the public – a fundamental change in policing in the country.
“The next two to four weeks is critical in how we battle this epidemic,” said Robert Bongiorno, police chief of Bedford, Massachusetts, a town of about 14,000 people.
Bongiorno is preparing to lose nearly half of his small police force to quarantines and actual sickness. His total staff: 41.
“You can literally wipe out an entire platoon of officers if you didn’t know whether someone really tested positive or not,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that conducts research and consulting for agencies. “Having someone sit at home for 14 days, two weeks, is a huge loss for a department. Huge. This is keeping officers safe and in service.”
In some jurisdictions, like San Jose, county officials have approved priority testing for officers and other first responders who show symptoms of coronavirus. But because of a nationwide shortage in testing kits, that’s not the case everywhere.
“We believe this policy needs to be implemented everywhere,” Kelly said. “We’re not special because we’re cops. We’re special because we need to get tested because we’re first responders.
“First responders cannot shelter in place,” Kelly added. “All of us have to do our jobs, and our families have to deal with that. The last thing we need is law enforcement who’s trying to help people to be exposing them because we don’t know that (we’re) carrying the virus.”
Supplies and coronavirus testing are scarce
In New York City — one of the hardest-hit places in the country — the number of sick officers is rising, although not dramatically, said New York Police Department spokesman Richard Esposito.
About 5% of the city’s police force, which totals 55,000 uniformed officers and civilians, have gotten sick, although only about 35 have tested positive as of Friday. Esposito said that number will grow.
Officials are in the process of making drive-through testing available for officers with symptoms, NYPD Assistant Chief James Essig said in a message to PERF that was included in the organization's daily newsletter. Officials are also concerned about having enough masks and sanitizing gels for police officers. "We run out of those items very quickly," Essig wrote.
Last week, the city’s police union filed a complaint with the New York State Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau saying the department has failed to provide adequate protective equipment and training to its officers.
"First and foremost, we are providing for the safety and education of our members. Supplies can be scarce as a crisis unfolds, but we are doing our utmost to ensure personal protective gear is in the hands of the members of our department," Esposito said in an email to USA TODAY.
In Chicago, only 40 officers who are part of specialized response teams are able to wear airtight masks each day because of a nationwide shortage, said Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
“Until we get to a point where we can put a mask in every officer’s hand, we had to change our protocols and delineate those types of calls to our specialized response teams,” Guglielmi said.
In Miami, where 59 officers had to be quarantined after the city’s mayor tested positive of coronavirus, test kits had not been enough, said Jorge Colina, chief of the Miami Police Department.
“We have gotten cooperation from our health department, but they really just didn’t have the ability (to test) upfront,” Colina said. “We have had officers tested. Not all, but some. The issue becomes the length of time to get the results back.”
Twenty of those 59 officers are now back to work, but Colina said the worst is yet to come.
“My fear is when it gets to a point where we don’t have enough (officers),” he said. “We’re going to have officers that are going to be ill. The amount of interaction is inevitable.”
The Miami Police Department has now set up health screenings that test each officer’s temperature every day. Those who aren’t showing symptoms are given color-coded wrist bands. Those who are get sent home.
Change in policing because of coronavirus
To avoid shrinking their police departments, agencies across the country have significantly changed how officers do their jobs. Policing in the middle of the pandemic means having as little interaction with the public and with fellow officers as possible.
Many agencies have asked the public to report minor violations, including some property crimes, online. Officers are asked to issue citations or summonses for nonviolent crimes, in part to not add to populations in jails, where social distancing is not an option and hygiene products are limited.
In Bellevue, Washington, dispatchers screen 911 callers for flu-like symptoms. If they have any, officers show up in full protective gear – and only in serious and life-threatening situations.
“We are engaging the public in different ways than we normally do. We are fighting an enemy that is invisible … and that creates anxiety for everybody,” said Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett. “We don’t want to catch it. We don’t want to get it on our clothes. We don’t want to take it home to our families.”
In Portland, Oregon, every member of the police bureau has been told they may have to respond to service calls, said Police Chief Jami Resch. Absent a public safety threat, officers are taking reports by phone instead of in person. If officers have to go to scenes, they talk to people from outside of their homes, Resch said.
The rule of thumb: Don’t arrest or touch someone unless you absolutely need to.
Beyond the heightened uncertainty that now comes with the job are the officers’ personal fears. Tasheba Pratt, a patrol officer in Miami, said her major concern was her elderly parents. Her father will be 80 this year and has a number of health issues. Her mother has dementia.
“It could be tough. I have really strong faith,” Pratt said. “I pray every morning. I pray for my fellow officers.”