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Local police departments find help in unexpected places amid coronavirus

Officers are embedded in the close-knit communities they're struggling to protect while also trying to protect themselves.
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A NYPD traffic officer wears a mask and goggles amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020 in New York.John Lamparski / Getty Images

In Avon Lake, Ohio, on the coast of Lake Erie, a tightknit police force of 30 full-time officers looks after the city's 24,000 residents.

Every officer is crucial, especially as the coronavirus pandemic seeps through the community, which already has over 40 positive cases of COVID19, the disease caused by the virus. Two of the cases are Avon Lake police officers who were taken off the roster and quarantined. A third officer was sent into isolation for possible exposure.

While losing three officers seems minuscule compared to the scores of officers infected in bigger police departments -- including over 4,100 in New York Cityand around 200 in Chicago -- for Avon Lake, about 20 miles west of Cleveland, that number is significant.

“Three guys being out is 10 percent of our workforce, and you don't want to be down 10 percent for an extended period of time,” said Lt. Vince Molnar of the town's Police Department.

While the officers are expected to recover and return to work soon, Molnar said the department is closely monitoring manpower to make sure it doesn’t get to a dangerous dipping point.

“We’re not there yet, but of course there is a concern if we do get there,” he said. “That’s not something we can predict, so the best thing we can do is get ourselves ready.”

Infection has already spread to officers in several small departments in several states, including Florida, Washington and Pennsylvania, where the interim police chief of a 20-member force died of COVID-19-related complications on Monday.

The coronavirus has taken a toll on several segments of society, but small police departments are especially vulnerable -- officers are embedded in the close-knit communities they're struggling to protect while also trying to protect themselves.

Many departments are planning layers of fail-safes in the event of mass contagion within their force. Help is coming from several places, some as unexpected as dentists' offices.

Rallying for resources

Deficiencies in resources to handle the pandemic have created significant pangs within small departments that frequently find themselves at the back of the line for supplies.

“Most people think about very large departments that have thousands of officers and what a challenge it would be to provide all of them with equipment, which is why supplies tend to go to those departments first,” said Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation. “The smaller departments are the most underequipped to handle this situation, which is the worst thing because those departments can't handle taking officers offline.”

Nearly 40 percent of agencies reported not having enough personal protective equipment, according to the National Police Foundation dashboard that is tracking COVID-19 responses by law enforcement. While the number reflects all sized departments, smaller agencies tend to have little bargaining power over reserves.

Small departments have had to rely heavily on community relationships by way of donations to get crucial supplies like masks, gloves, and even hand sanitizer.

In Avon Lake, much of their stockpile came from the local medical community including dentists' offices, Molnar said.

“We can’t say enough about the generosity of the community during these types of times” said Molnar, who added that the donations are also helping the town’s EMS responders, who are in even more need of these items than police officers.

But even with this help, small departments aren't getting enough access to coronavirus testing and can be devastated by sidelining officers who have been exposed to the virus without being able to confirm a diagnosis.

“Widespread testing had stopped in the area, and the only people tested are law enforcement officers who are symptomatic,” said Chief Anthony Geraci of the Watervliet Police Department just outside of Albany, New York.

Watervliet, where most of its 10,000 residents live within a square mile of one another, has a police force of 24 officers. The county where it sits already has over 500 coronavirus cases.

“We don't have enough tests. If you're being hospitalized you're being tested. if you are symptomatic for law enforcement and EMS, you're being tested,” he said. But if testing starts to open up more for law enforcement, officers can remain on streets.

Neighborly help

One way small departments have prepared for an outbreak is by putting into place or updating mutual aid agreements between surrounding agencies. Under these agreements, a law enforcement agency can reach out to neighboring departments to respond to calls for service in the event they are short-staffed.

In Medina, Ohio, less than 40 miles from Avon Lake, there are 40 full-time officers, and Chief Edward Kinney along with several surrounding area police chiefs signed mutual aid agreements in the early days of the outbreak ensuring that officers can fill in for one another across lines.

“The biggest issue is personnel. If I lose 10 guys that's a quarter of my working force,” he said. “We were all in similar situations, so we wanted to make sure we are backing each other up.”

So far, the Medina Police Department has one officer who has tested positive for COVID-19, but Kinney said he is bracing for a surge in cases in the next few weeks.

Several smaller departments have also staked agreements with state police as well as court officers who are now available with many courthouses being shut down.

While this kind of cross jurisdictional aid is common among agencies, implementation is not always seamless or an easy solution, said Meagan Cahill, a senior policy researcher in policing at the Rand Corp.

Neighboring officers may not be familiar with the neighborhoods and dynamics of a different town, which may cause some bumps, she said.

“Agencies are also notorious for being pretty territorial,” Cahill adds. “They want to do things their way and not the way a neighboring town does, so it’s hard to get neighboring agencies to work together.”

But Cahill feels this could be a turning point in law enforcement, especially for those agencies that have normally been reluctant to partner with others.

“This could push them to realize the value of mutual aid agreements and be better set up to do it in the future," she said.

A new normal

Smaller departments in small and rural towns are often deeply entrenched in the communities they serve, so for many of these officers, cutting nonessential interaction has become a new challenge.

“In the past it was to engage as much as possible, whether that’s in classrooms, at schools, on streets, or in the business district. We were out there shaking hands, getting to know people, and building relationships,” Geraci said. “Now it’s the opposite.”

Geraci adds that it’s been “awkward” for his officers to remove themselves from public interaction while also maintaining a visible presence.

In practice, it's meant less self-initiated police work, taking calls in lieu of in-person reports, and issuing citations over arrests in order to limit contact.

Several small police departments have reported that calls for service have greatly reduced, and most of their calls involve domestic violence or mental health emergencies.

Molnar of Avon Lake said that several of his officers who are used to engaging with the public have been having a hard time dealing with that lack of connection.

“They like being out in the community and seeing people, but now there's a realization that doing that can adversely affect people around you, ” he said. “What’s really struck me is the normal strong work ethic that we normally promote has now become something that can actually be doing a negative rather than a positive."