How police departments can prepare the best COVID-19 response
In a recent webinar, police chiefs shared lessons learned from responding to two epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic
By Amanda Lien, Editorial Assistant
When 25 Kirkland, Wash. firefighters and two police officers were placed under quarantine on March 1 due to a COVID-19 outbreak at a care facility, Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris knew that was just the beginning.
“Within a few days, we knew we had a big problem,” said Harris. “Almost immediately, we had several calls a day from that nursing home. We started investigating calls for service and were prepared for at least one member of our personnel to test positive (for the coronavirus) as a result.”
Across the country, in New Rochelle, N.Y., Deputy Commissioner Robert Gazzola and his department saw a similar phenomenon beginning a matter of days after the first COVID-19 infection was reported. The National Guard was called in to assist New Rochelle police in setting up a containment perimeter to halt the virus’ spread.
Harris and Gazzola joined medical officers and CDC officials on a COVID-19 law enforcement briefing webinar organized by the National Police Foundation. Harris and Gazzola shared several key takeaways from their agencies’ experiences battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maintain communication with other agencies
With both Kirkland firefighters and police responding to the initial outbreak at the Life Care Center, establishing open lines of communication was vital, Harris said.
“Within a few days, we started providing our officers with personal protective gear and set up a joint command center with the fire and police chiefs,” Harris said. “We worked with our fire department to determine what personal protective gear to wear and when we needed to wear it. For example, we didn’t know that N95s, in our state, needed to be fit-tested. They did.”
Communication with the fire department was also beneficial when it came to updates on COVID-19 cases and deaths, Harris said.
“[The fire department] is getting direction from the public health department and the CDC and they’re better connected with the hospitals and medical personnel that are seeing the virus cases and who’s surviving,” she said. “They can turn around and communicate that to law enforcement.”
Lack of communication between agencies can lead to unnecessary conflict. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the National Guard was being deployed to New Rochelle, there was a misunderstanding as to what a “containment zone" entails that led to a poor community reaction.
“We had to explain to people that it was about placing a one-mile radius to eliminate large groups of people gathering together,” Gazzola said. “The National Guard came in just to distribute food to people who were essentially shut in at the time. That information wasn’t clear at first and it led to a lot of public confusion.”
Plan ahead and ask for what you need
When Gazzola and his staff realized the pandemic was going to continue striking New Rochelle, they immediately ordered hand sanitizer, cleaning products and personal protective gear in bulk so the department was prepared well in advance.
“We knew we were going to have to balance protecting our officers with responding to the needs of the community,” Gazzola said. “So, I would tell any department, when you have the opportunity, stockpile the items you’ll need in these instances ahead of time.”
Harris added that police leaders should never be afraid to ask for assistance from governmental entities. When it became clear that staff and patients at Life Care Center of Kirkland were not receiving adequate assistance to treat and stop the spread of the coronavirus, Harris said she appealed to city leaders, who contacted the governor’s office and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to request more support.
“When they did finally get more teams on the ground, the calls for assistance at that facility dropped off dramatically,” she said. “That’s what I would tell any police chief in a similar situation. If you need more support, ask for it sooner rather than later. Apply that pressure.”
Alter your agency’s approach to investigations
Since the first COVID-19 outbreak, Harris said she has urged caution during any in-person interaction between a community member and a law enforcement officer.
“All our officers carry glasses and masks,” she said. “On calls for service, they ask people to come outside. We’re going into homes only as a last resort. We’ve also had to prioritize what calls we’re going to respond to.”
Harris added that officers should be aware of locations that are more likely to be susceptible to COVID-19 infections, such as nursing homes and adult living facilities. When officers are dispatched to any of those locations, they receive a special alert instructing them to wear their protective gear.
“And again, they call inside and ask others to come out,” she said. “Because it’s not just about protecting ourselves. It’s about protecting others, especially the elderly, as well.”
Gazzola also urged flexibility when it comes to community-based policing models. While community engagement is still vital, it must take a different form when a contagious virus is at play.
“We’ve put unnecessary contact to an end and looked at calls for service as something we might be able to do on the phone,” he said. “We relaxed non-serious violation enforcement, so all that extra contact was eliminated. We want people to feel like we’re taking care of them, but we can’t take care when we’re also being infected.”
The full webinar is available below. For more information, law enforcement agencies can refer to the CDC COVID-19 guidelines, view the National Police Foundation’s COVID-19 Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard and visit PoliceOne's special coverage page for updated news and resources.