Policing during a pandemic: What citizens can expect from their cops

By Stephen Owsinski

No doubt everyone is well aware of the upending of our American societal norms, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Also no doubt our nation’s law enforcement officers are really gonna have their hands full, running the gamut: From maintaining order in a society in which citizens are going to get desperate and make very bad decisions to restraining an entirely different threat, one which is molecular and can kill.

Fighting crime and combating infection are not unfamiliar things to cops. They are exposed to certain threatening elements every single duty day—open-sore addicts; drunkards and their soiled selves; blood-drenched crime scenes; dirty needles in denim pockets…you get the picture. Modern-day police cruisers have holes bored out/plugged in the rear floorboards for a reason: many bodily fluids having a (ahem) coming-out session back there, and jail trustees (custodial caretakers) get to hose- down/disinfect the cop car and drain it all through that plugged hole in the floorboards.

But this coronavirus is a whole new combatant that not only cops but everyone is confronting anew. And that’s where it gets undoubtedly dicey. Human nature can be a tricky thing, and law enforcement officers (LEOs) will be right where they always are: your city streets. Only with a vapor-borne killer that even night-vision can’t detect. You may see some cops in your area donning protective gear which in the police biz is called PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). National Police Association contributor Steve Pomper provided a detailed description, among other COVID-19-related details.

So, what about laws? How will our way of life, governed by rules and regulations, alter? Fair question with perhaps anticipated answers: many laws will be subdued or altogether shelved while other laws such as curfews and commerce regulations may be imposed. In many states already, restaurants and bars were largely shuttered at the local government’s behest. You’ll see similar things, and we will cover some to whet the whistle.

Here in the state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis just issued an executive order minimizing business practices in all bars and restaurants. My daughter manages one of the latter and is now forlorn from thoughts about economic impact. (The federal government’s stimulus package amounting to about $500 billion in aid to now-jobless citizens like my daughter is something.)

Governor DeSantis also just authorized suspending enforcement (collections) of any vehicle’s expired tag for one month. That is a so-called grace period not ordinarily recognized by Florida state statute. (I qualify that because, as a cop, I was sometimes asked by folks from other states why I was not granting them a grace period for their admittedly expired tag. In Florida, time’s up on your birthday…which I always thought to be a cruel B-day gift from government—also why I didn’t write expired tags citations unless it had gobs of cobwebs on the tin tag.)

In my neck of the woods, the county sheriff’s office has announced they are suspending civil actions such as evictions for at least 30 days. Nationally, only sheriff’s deputies serve civil process orders such as eviction notices, and enforce them when court-ordered time is up. The pandemic has granted a reprieve in that regard, for both the deputies who serve notices and those facing eviction. As Sheriff Chad Chronister pointedly put it, “How do we ask people to shelter in place when we take their shelter from them.” The shelter-in-place concept is one echoed by clinicians and scientists working governments, its purpose to separate people from potential contagion. One such candidate didn’t wanna play nice, so a judge court-ordered him to confined in his home, with a compliment of LEOs right outside his Kentucky home.

Sounds like a hint of Martial Law, and California and Michigan are warming the idea for now. Because of Mr. Kentucky who pays a mortgage but would rather be out in public infecting innocent people, Martial Law seems befitting. Quite a constitutional conundrum, eh?

But what if Mr. Kentucky was one among a major exponential number of infected citizens whose stir-crazy period has climaxed and they insist on their right to roam free with a deadly virus on board. Frankly, the nation’s approximately 900,000 cops likely be stretched way too thin, resulting in National Guardsman to beef up the ranks for quarantined rebels.

Okay, enough of the spooky stuff. Some pretty coo cop things have stemmed from this pandemic.

St. Louis County PD did something rather unique to help abate the unorthodox circumstances while also making robust their rank and file numbers. They compiled a list of all their police retirees who hung up the duty belt within the last decade and emailed each to let them know their services will be needed to help staff the 24/7 operations of law and order. For those retired cops who let their weapons certifications lapse, no problem…desk duty answering phones is the role to be filled while the regulars hit the streets. Never saw this kind of measure before. As a retired copper, my antennae jutted.

Many law enforcement agencies have adopted a policy of taking “non-critical” reports over the phone. It’s a weeding out process based on prioritizing calls for services; like St. Louis realized, there won’t be enough cops to do business as usual. Although I suppose many folks will self-judge that their dire emergency of someone blocking their driveway is an urgent-response matter, sorry…no threat to life exists. Next!

The closest thing I’ve come to a pandemic as a cop is when these named hurricanes decide to whip through Florida, flex muscle, and provide a shellacking. All “essential personnel” such as police, fire, and hospital staff are essentially related to hunker down at pre-assigned locations throughout the jurisdiction—I often wound up stuffed in a sleeping bag on the floor of the city library; good thing I love to read. But the family were home, where I wanted to be but couldn’t: “Duty calls.”

During this pandemic, police shifts consist of what is referred to as Alpha-Bravo: one squad works twelve hours then is relieved by an oncoming squad for twelve hours; in rotation, that allows constant police presence while half the force rests up for their next cycle of half-day work days…and on it goes until leaders gauge the threat has been abated. Thus with a silent killer whose presence is cloaked as vapors, this may take a while. Warm temps will be the best back-up ever.

Call me weird but I always found such circumstances to be adrenaline-inducing and exhilarating, knowing many needed help and I was an element of the overall response. Fatigued like it is nobody’s business, the physical and mental drive was always there. And the proverbial adrenaline dump came knocking, without fail.

Not that law enforcers are unaccustomed to rebellion and self-centered individuals who somehow believe their needs are before anyone else’s, but desperate folks do desperate things. Thus you may observe or hear about an increased hypervigilant demeanor aka short-tempered cop or two…dozen. Nothing personal, just trying to thwart the end of the world if they can help it. Cooperation is much appreciated. For those who commit low-level crimes, the police are not being lazy by not responding; they are prioritizing enormous logistics with few hands on deck to mete out general problems secondary to a rare, deadly health epidemic.

Cops are just as apprehensive as any other human being. Respectfully-speaking, they have all the reason in the world to wonder if they’ll ever return home. Cops are especially threatened by a pandemic; the very purpose of LEOs is contact with citizens. As a NJ.com article pointed out: cops do not get to work from home like many get to do during a pandemic. And this brings us to the welfare of our cops, firefighters, paramedics, ER doctors, hospital nurses, and clinicians of any sort.

It is a routine practice, an academy indoctrination, for police officers to back one another. But none have crystal balls projecting the innards and what the gears look like. The elephant in the room must be pointed out for what it is: a silent nightmare. Police suicide, although not necessarily new, is more prevalent. We are making some strides, but there is a way to go.

Although I try to refrain from rhetoric, I must acknowledge the anti-police climate we have permitted to fester in our beloved country governed by ways and means, spelled out in laws guiding us to do the right thing. Not everyone reads the Constitution or, if they do, cares to oblige all others’ rights and play by the rules. That’s where cops come in.

Nothing novel there…until a pandemic strikes and people run around like crazed chickens with a bizarre hankering for toilet paper. But that’s not really a police problem. They’ll be grinding ahead and doing gritty police work with enormous threat to their own lives.

An ABC News report titled “No days off for police departments during coronavirus outbreak” with a subtitle of “Police are often in some of the most vulnerable positions” was published after I created the outline for what you are reading. That ABC report is dated March 14, just a day or so before unmistakable climactic matters were implemented, such as cops kicking it into highest gear.

If the ABC News title holds water —it surely does— then police personnel aren’t returning to the routines of home-life for about one month—that’s just tentative and instills a sense of hope. And the article’s subtitle hits the nail on the head, actually drives it benthic-deep into abyssal territory; it’s gonna get dark before the light reappears. We are seeing it already, and being told it’s just the beginning.

With that stark statement, I’ve only today noticed a sense of togetherness, the binds which encompass ordinary people and catapults them into extraordinary feats of sustained longevity. Getting through this together is fundamentally key; you don’t need to hear it from me.

A law enforcement Friend online is on duty in Albuquerque and shared the following great intention: “Every grocery store in this country needs to have a senior/disabled shopping hour at the start of the day. The rest of us can handle standing in line. If you all see an elderly person struggling at the store, help them out, we are only as good as our actions. If you are elderly or disabled in the Albuquerque area and need help, send me a message, I or someone in my church will help you get your shopping done.” That’s the brand of cop Ryan is —selfless and caring about people he meets on his beat— and Albuquerque PD is fortunate to have him among their finest.

As I understand it, some retail chains are already considering this seniors-first shopping concept. In the interim, cops like the Albuquerque officer offered himself and his agency/church resources to facilitate necessities for our nation’s most vulnerable population. The majority of coronavirus-related deaths are among our senior citizens; you can expect cops to be checking in on our elderly folks, perhaps more than they usually do in ordinary times.

Mind you, this is not necessarily a novel practice; it is publicized more stemming from the pandemic’s threat. First responders have never been more defined than when the world is all hurting, together, from the same exact woe. Despite the variations in uniform colors and the different shoulder patch designs, law enforcement officials are on the front lines…for as long as it takes. Rest assured, America.

Speaking of rest, hopefully citizens can endure the pandemic well enough without getting too skittish and supersensitive from all the gloom and doom media coverage.

In California, many law enforcement agencies are already dealing with the chaos via 9-1-1 callers inundating emergency lines with reports of “hearing the neighbor coughing.” Yes, you read that right. The media blast about this pandemic has folks a tad (ahem)…responsive.

And for Pete’s sake, stop calling the police via 9-1-1, asking for toilet paper! Again, that’s not a police problem.

One last thing: this “social distancing” thing being bandied about quite a lot lately is actually one of the most practiced de-escalation techniques employed by cops across the nation, so I think we are in good hands and off to a wonderful start. But that Kentucky guy, though…

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