Virus hits hundreds of US police amid protective gear shortages

Pandemic has depleted police forces already strained by staffing shortages. (Reuters pic)

NEW YORK: When nine police officers showed up to make an arrest near Melrose Avenue in the Bronx last Wednesday, none wore a mask or gloves to protect them from coronavirus.

Similar scenes play out all over the city daily: officers making arrests, walking their beats and responding to 911 calls without protective gear, according to interviews with nearly two dozen New York City officers and scenes witnessed by Reuters.

As of Monday, 930 members of the nation’s biggest police force had tested positive for the coronavirus, including 824 uniformed officers and 106 civilian staffers, according to NYPD.

The department said 5,199 of its about 55,000 total employees are on sick leave.

Major city departments nationwide, such as Houston and Detroit, are being forced to sideline officers as infections rise in the ranks, according to a Reuters survey of the nation’s 20 largest US police agencies conducted between March 25 and March 30.

The police agencies have confirmed 1,169 cases of Covid-19 among officers or civilian staff, according to the survey and a Reuters review of the departments’ public statements.

The pandemic has depleted police forces already strained by staffing shortages. Many departments have told officers to limit their interactions with the public and maintain social distancing.

Some agencies are re-assigning detectives and administrative staff to help respond to emergencies as more patrol officers get sick, which requires pulling the investigators away from major cases.

“There’s a lot of triaging going on,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues.

“Many departments are having to re-order priorities and the calls they respond to. Police are having to reshuffle how they use their resources.”

NYPD may face the biggest challenge because of the severity of the city’s outbreak: Of the 3,017 deaths reported nationwide as of Monday, 914 came in New York City.

The officers interviewed by Reuters said shortages of gear leave them vulnerable and that they fear spreading the virus to their families and the public.

“We show up first, to everything, and we are completely unprotected,” said one officer in the 33rd precinct.

All of the New York officers interviewed by Reuters spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the department forbids them from speaking to reporters.

Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said that the department was responding to an “unprecedented” crisis and has issued detailed guidance to officers on how to protect themselves.

Since the outbreak began, she said, the NYPD has distributed 204,000 pairs of gloves, 75,000 N-95 masks, 340,000 surgical masks and distributed 125,000 alcohol wipes and hand sanitiser to employees.

NYPD did not answer questions from Reuters about whether that amount of gear — much of it disposable — was sufficient to protect its 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees.

The department also did not comment on the accounts of officers who said they had little or no protective gear, or whether it had experienced difficulty in purchasing enough supplies.

Masks and other protective or sanitary supplies have often been scarce since the pandemic sent worldwide demand surging, prompting safety concerns from a wide range of workers who interact daily with the public, from first responders to doctors to delivery drivers.

One uniformed NYPD officer, a school safety agent and two civilian employees have died after contracting Covid-19.

The officer — 23-year veteran detective Cedric Dixon from the 32nd precinct in Harlem — died on Saturday.

School safety agent Sabrina Jefferson, a 26-year-veteran who was assigned to Patrol Borough Queens South School Safety, died on Sunday. Test results are pending for senior police administrative aide Gwendolyn King, who died on Monday.

On March 13, the New York City police union filed a complaint with state health and safety regulators over the department’s failure to provide protective equipment and adequate cleaning and sanitising supplies.

The union emphasised the threat to officers’ families.

“It’s important for our leaders to remember that we aren’t the only ones at risk,” said Patrick J Lynch, president of the city’s police union, in a statement. “Our husbands and wives and daughters and sons didn’t pick this job, but they share our sacrifice.”

Reuters was not able to determine whether any family members of NYPD officers had been infected.

Sidelined officers, delayed arrests 

Departments nationwide are struggling to protect their officers — and to operate without those who are getting sick.

The Reuters survey asked police agencies how many of their employees tested positive for coronavirus, how many were quarantined, and how the outbreak has impacted their operations.

The Nassau County Police Department — just outside New York City on Long Island — reported the second highest number of cases with 68 employees testing positive.

In Detroit, 598 employees of the city’s 2,200-member force have been quarantined after at least 69 officers tested positive — including the police chief. Two department staffers, a commanding officer and a 911 dispatcher, have died after contracting the virus.

The San Antonio Police Department was the only one that reported no confirmed infections on its force.

In New Orleans and Seattle — which are not among the top 20 departments but are hotspots of infection — another seven police employees tested positive, the departments told Reuters.

The outbreak is forcing law enforcement agencies nationwide to implement sweeping changes to their policing strategies.

The Philadelphia Police Department, the nation’s fourth-largest law enforcement agency with 6,540 officers, has begun delaying arrests for certain non-violent offenders.

The change means individuals will be temporarily detained only to confirm identity and complete required paperwork instead of being processed at a detective division. The person will then be arrested at a later date.

The 2,440-officer Nassau County department had quarantined 163 officers as of Saturday. Its dispatchers are screening all 911 calls to check if anyone needing help is exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19.

Responding officers and medics are ordered to wear an N95 mask, gloves, eye protection and gowns, the department said.

Some departments are limiting access to their buildings. Intercoms have been installed at the entrance doors of all seven precincts of the Suffolk County police department — also in Long Island, with nearly 2,500 officers — to screen visitors for symptoms before allowing entry.

In Dallas, where 34 employees from the police department have been quarantined and two have tested positive, officers are no longer physically responding to calls for certain minor crimes. People are instead being asked to file a report online.

Complaints over shortages of protective gear are growing in major police departments. The Dallas Police Department, for instance, has issued N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser to its more than 3,000 officers.

But the police union president says it’s not enough. Many officers, he said, are using the same mask for days even though N95 masks are not meant to be reused.

“Those masks are in such dire need,” said Michael Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. “We’re in a very bad spot.”

Mata says he’s been told the police department has ordered more protective gear. A Dallas police spokesman said the new supplies would be handed out starting Monday and confirmed that some patrol divisions had run low on gear.

In New York City, resentment over a lack of protective gear runs deep, according to interviews with current and former officers.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cops working on the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center were told the air was safe to breathe. Years later, many developed fatal 9/11-related cancers and illnesses.

“This is even worse than 9/11,” said one NYPD officer. “We are bringing this home to our families.”

‘Business as usual’ for criminals 

While local stay-home orders and business closures have paralysed the economy, they do not appear to have significantly slowed crime.

Reuters reviewed police dispatch records in a handful of large cities, which showed far fewer traffic stops but similar rates of calls reporting more serious crimes.

In Baltimore, the Monday after Maryland’s governor issued an order shutting non-essential businesses, city police reported making just 71 traffic stops, compared to a daily average of more than 350 a day in the months before the virus hit, dispatch records showed.

But dispatches to more serious incidents were not diminished.

The number of calls reporting a family disturbance, such as domestic fights, for instance, increased slightly after the governor imposed the first business restrictions on March 16. The number of dispatches involving assaults was largely unchanged.

Baltimore’s police force did not respond to requests for comment.

ShotSpotter — a company that tracks gunshots for many large police departments using networks of microphones — said there had been no perceptible slowdown in gunfire in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami.

“It’s business as usual, sadly, with respect to gun violence,” said ShotSpotter president Ralph Clark.