After COVID-19 death of Fla. deputies, 'fear factor' among police amplified

Law enforcement officers say their fear for their safety has increased as departmental PPE reserves continue to be depleted and confirmed cases rise

Martin Vassolo
Miami Herald

BROWARD, Fla. — A Broward sheriff’s deputy who died Friday night of COVID-19, the illness caused by the quickly spreading coronavirus, is the first South Florida law enforcement officer to fall victim to the deadly disease.

The death of Deputy Shannon Bennett, a 12-year BSO veteran, underscored the risks experienced by first-responders and amplified calls from the local police union to better protect deputies, who say they are faced with a shortage of gear meant to protect them from an invisible killer.

Law enforcement officers in Florida have called on leadership to better protect them in the wake of two COVID-19 deaths this weekend.
Law enforcement officers in Florida have called on leadership to better protect them in the wake of two COVID-19 deaths this weekend. (Photo/TNS)

“We’ve been saying it for weeks,” said Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association. “Some deputies don’t have masks. Some do have masks that have been used several times before.”

The 39-year-old Bennett died “in the line of duty,” and had been in the care of a local hospital since March 27, BSO Sheriff Gregory Tony said during a news conference Saturday. Bennett first reported he was sick four days earlier.

“We lost a man in the line of duty, and we’re probably going to lose another,” Tony said. “But we’re going to keep fighting this battle and if you support us then take heed of this virus.”

Deputies, who are allotted one medical-grade mask each at a time, can’t receive replacements until their mask is “destroyed or soiled,” Bell said. Members of the department have taken to Facebook to post photos of their busted masks, some of which lose their effectiveness after one shift.

Cops have been told to use their equipment “sparingly,” said Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association.

“They don’t have probably enough masks to change out after every contact,” he said. “They are trying to stretch the resources as they can.”

If a deputy feels he or she may come in contact with someone who is positive for the coronavirus, their supervisor must be called to drop off a fresh mask and more specialized equipment — a medical gown and goggles — to the lower-ranking deputy, Bell said.

The union offered to supply the sheriff’s office with 1,400 masks, but Sheriff Tony has refused to accept them amid frosty relations with the union, Bell said.

“Under this [sheriff’s] administration, I worry for the safety and the lives of our deputies,” Bell said.

Skrivin, who said he supports Tony’s leadership, nevertheless agreed with Bell that more supplies are needed.

“The same problems that have arisen at the sheriff’s office have arisen at every office in the county,” said Skrivin, who represents police across Broward County, not just at BSO. “Some of it is out of the chief or sheriff’s control. They are all in this together.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended one way or another what type of protection officers should use during regular policing duties. The CDC does recommend officers maintain a distance of six feet from members of the public, practice hand hygiene and use proper equipment when dealing with someone suspected of having the virus.

“Learn your employer’s plan for exposure control and participate in all-hands training on the use of PPE for respiratory protection, if available,” the CDC guidance says.

A spokeswoman with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, with 2,800 sworn officers and 5,400 employees — including street deputies, fire rescue, corrections officers and civilians — did not respond to a question about the mask donation. But, in an email, she told the Miami Herald its supply issues are no different than those at law enforcement agencies across the region.

Compared to the nearly 1,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus among police in New York, the larger policing agencies in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have reported fewer positive tests for COVID-19.

The overall number of police officers who are now self-isolated, either awaiting results of a test or because they may have come into contact with the disease, is also lower than in New York.

Bennett was one of the 21 BSO employees who had tested positive for COVID-19, Tony said. There are 20 other deputies and 119 employees who were in isolation, either awaiting a test result or because they may have come in contact with the virus, BSO said.

By comparison, more than 1,800 New York Police Department employees — including 1,619 police officers — have contracted the coronavirus as of Friday. Seven NYPD employees had died and about 6,700 cops are out sick.

In Detroit, which has recorded at least 97 deaths citywide, two officers have died after contracting the disease and the police chief has tested positive.

“Like many agencies across the nation, BSO is faced with the harsh reality that supply chains that provide important protective equipment are facing diminished capacity,” the spokeswoman said. “We continue to leverage relationships with vendors and community partners. We are monitoring our resources and providing guidance to our staff on the recommended use of personal protective equipment.”

Friday’s death of a BSO deputy increased the “fear factor” at police departments across South Florida, said Steadman Stahl, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association.

“Nobody wants to be a statistic,” Stahl said. “Unfortunately for our job, we can’t walk away from it. That’s why we encourage the public, if you’re out there, you’re just exposing the officers.”

Stahl, who represents officers at the Miami-Dade Police Department and at cities across the county, said police departments have expressed frustration at the lack of testing made available to officers.

The public drive-through testing site at Hard Rock Stadium, which offered priority testing to first responders for a limited time, no longer reserves tests for police and firefighters. That means officers who display symptoms must sometimes wait two hours to get a test if one is not readily available through hospital contacts.

“If you’re showing the symptoms, it’s too late,” Stahl said. “You have it.”

Supply shortages for Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, is a challenge every police department in the country is dealing with, Stahl said. Officers have enough gear for now, he said, and the police chiefs are working hard to maintain a steady supply of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“The inventory is starting to go down,” Stahl said. “Now you’re competing with everyone that’s trying to get the equipment.”

Police have made changes to limit the exposure their officers have to the public. Cops are taking down more reports by phone and, when necessary, standing several feet away from other people when responding to calls. Arrests are way down amid the pandemic.

“You don’t learn that in the police academy,” Stahl said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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