For law enforcement officers, practicing social distancing and leading by example aren’t as simple as working from home and avoiding face-to-face contact. On any given day, front-line police have numerous interactions with the public — responding to calls for service, making traffic stops, carrying out patrols.
Local departments are taking precautions to protect officers from exposure to the coronavirus, but officials said that providing services while adhering to state health guidelines is a balancing act.
“We have a responsibility to enforce public safety, and during a public health emergency, the reality is we may have to respond to situations where officers risk exposure to something such as the COVID-19 virus,” Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said. “We will take all precautions we can to prevent it, but unfortunately that possible exposure is something that comes with the job.”
Area departments have adjusted their practices and made a variety of changes in facility maintenance in recent weeks to better protect employees. For many residents, these changes may be too subtle to notice. Officials said that’s the point.
Lacey, Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson, Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr. and the Charlestown police confirmed that they are making logistical changes to limit exposure without hindering any public safety services. All departments will continue to be open through the duration of the public health crisis and beyond.
Lacey said the “common sense changes” aim to restrict unnecessary face-to-face interaction. For example, officers will continue to be dispatched to medical calls but will no longer enter a home or business place during these responses unless there is a law enforcement concern.
All officers have been issued gloves, eye protection and other equipment for use when interaction is necessary. Lacey noted, however, that the department has a limited supply of masks and would continue to look to state and federal agencies to supply more of them. Officers are not yet restricted from using their time off, he said, and anyone who shows any signs of illness is asked to stay home.
The lobby of the Westerly police station is being disinfected several times during each shift, and Lacey said the community room has been closed. Classes for Correctional Emergency Response Training and driver education classes have been postponed. Training for officers has also been postponed until the crisis has subsided.
“There will be a scheduling challenge later, but that’s to be expected,” Lacey said. “We will take all precautions we can and do what needs to be done to comply with social distancing efforts. However, we will not make any changes that put the public at risk.”
If a crime occurs, the priority for officers is making an arrest, which may involve considerable risk of infection, Lacey said. He said the department would also be proactive in preventing crimes, and would be watching to see whether there will be any spike in domestic complaints or mental health problems as people are cooped up in their homes.
In Stonington, Olson said the department's community room is closed and the lobby is being regularly cleaned. He added that the police are partnering with the Stonington Public Schools in using the district’s electrostatic disinfectant fogger for more commonly-trafficked areas of the building.
“We are working regularly with all other town agencies and the state to assure everyone is on the page in regard to COVID-19 response,” Olson said. “Our level of service will not change. We are here to help and will respond to all emergency needs in town.”
Olson said the department has also cross-trained officers to serve as dispatchers in the event of mass sickness, and has been reviewing mutual aid agreements and plans with surrounding departments so that no matter what happens, all local towns remain covered.
When face-to-face interaction with the public is not required, Olson said, officers have been told to conduct as much business over the phone as possible. Residents are also encouraged to call instead of visiting the police station. When there is no immediate emergency, he added, people who are making a complaint may be asked to speak to an officer through the protective glass at the dispatch window, or to meet outside where it is easier to maintain space.
The department has also worked to publicize any policy changes. The police posted an online message Tuesday detailing their efforts. The message can be read at www.stonington-ct.gov/police-department/news.
“These are different times, as we all band together to try and slow the flow of this virus,” the department said. “Our practices may temporarily change, but we will do everything we can to continue to offer our best service to you. Above all, if you have an active emergency, we will respond and help.”
Smaller departments such as Richmond and Charlestown have also implemented similar changes, officials said, have adjusted non-essential services to limit exposure. Johnson said he issued a directive to his staff two weeks ago detailing these changes.
Johnson said the department has also limited certain services such as fingerprint requests, background checks and VIN checks to reduce the flow of traffic through the police station. People who need those services are asked to call ahead rather than simply stopping by.
The community and senior center, which is housed in the same building as the police department, will remain closed through the duration of thecrisis.
In a message on Facebook, the Charlestown police announced they would limit the same non-essential services and asked that people seeking public records should refrain from doing so in person. The department’s website, www.charlestownpolice.org, has information on the records request process.
Johnson said, “This is obviously disruptive to the normal way of life we all enjoy, but it is important to follow those guidelines strictly to minimize the risk of illness to one another, and hopefully shorten that window of time so we can get back to the routines of life we all knew before this outbreak.”