Calif. LE agencies face staffing challenges as COVID-19 sweeps through ranks

Limited response capabilities and long shifts are taking a toll on officers, officials say

By Ishani Desai
The Bakersfield Californian

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — Law enforcement agencies across the nation, including throughout Kern County, are grappling with staffing shortages caused by first responders contracting COVID-19.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office said about 50 detention deputies were out sick Thursday with COVID-19. This number only represents a preliminary estimate, as KCSO spokeswoman Danielle Kernkamp did not have the total number of deputies infected with the coronavirus immediately available Thursday.

"It puts us in a tough post," Kernkamp said. "We are just doing the best we can to move staff around and ease the strain on all of the deputies. Not everybody is able to or wants to stay over, after their normal shift."

She added employees work overtime, and deputies are transferring to other units to fill vacancies.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office released a reminder this week asking the community to abstain from calling deputies for crimes not currently underway. Residents can report crimes at Deputies will call to collect necessary information and respond to a scene to collect evidence for a crime, according to a KCSO news release.

" The Kern County Sheriff's Office will be conducting our duties as we always have, other than trying to limit in-person contact as much as possible for the protection of both the community and sheriff's employees from COVID-19," the news release said.

Joe Conroy, spokesman for the city of Bakersfield, said the city does not keep track of the number of COVID-19 cases within the Bakersfield Police Department. However, the BPD is also dealing with an increase of cases, which city officials were able to observe from the city's human resources department dealing with more questions and calls, Eric Galvan, a city spokesman, said in an email.

Sgt. Robert Pair, a BPD spokesman, said the department has felt an impact, like all other organizations across the country. However, BPD operations have not been disrupted, he added.

Most significantly, COVID-19 greatly affects police departments within rural areas because these agencies already contain low staffing numbers. Within those areas, the absence of two people can disrupt normal operations, said Lt. Jon Paul Javellana, assistant chief of the Arvin Police Department.

Javellana said currently no officers have the virus. However, around the New Year, two officers got the coronavirus. One non-sworn employee also contracted the virus, Javellana said. In total, the department has 19 sworn officers and six personnel, he added.

"That's serious," Javellana said. "That's a massive hit."

He added that officers wear a mask when interacting with the public. However, because of their job, they often must be within close proximity of a person they arrest. Most critically, he said, fewer officers patrol the streets because of the virus. On some nights, there have been two officers on duty for certain periods of time, the lieutenant said.

A community service officer had to be trained as a dispatcher because one staff member within the dispatcher unit was sick with COVID-19 and another was on vacation, Javellana said.

He also added the COVID-19 pandemic offered cities a chance to get funding and give law enforcement agencies this money to equip themselves. The Arvin Police Department bought more vehicles and is looking for another three or four officers to fill its ranks.

Javellana added low staffing takes a mental health toll on officers. Some officers may have to work 12-hour shifts six to seven days straight to fill the gaps. The police department is open every day, at all hours — and employees do not have the option to take a day off, he added.

"It wears on a person," Javellana said. "It's very difficult because they're expected to be optimally performing with minimal recovery time."

The Delano Police Department also changed its response procedures after 12 people, including Police Chief Tyson Davis, contracted COVID-19. They have about 46 positions, he added. Last week, he moved some administrative staff to the field and tasked some detectives with patrolling.

"We made the decision to take extra precautions to prevent others from getting sick," Davis said.

Capt. Jeff Bell of the Shafter Police Department said one employee currently has COVID-19. There are about 31 total employees serving the agency, he added.

(c)2022 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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