Arizona police leaders discuss COVID infection rates among officers, vaccination protocols

"We’re getting hit hard in our communications bureau, as well as our patrol division."


Reprinted with permission from PERF's Daily COVID-19 reports

Last Wednesday, PERF spoke with four Arizona police executives about how they’re managing their state’s spike in COVID cases in Phoenix, Mesa, Sedona and Glendale.

Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams, Mesa Assistant Chief Ed Wessing, Sedona Chief Charles Husted and Glendale Chief Chris Brigg.
Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams, Mesa Assistant Chief Ed Wessing, Sedona Chief Charles Husted and Glendale Chief Chris Brigg.

Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams: We're really feeling it now

Our city is testing positive at a rate that we didn’t see in round one of COVID, and it’s throughout the city. It’s not just one patrol bureau, unit, or precinct; it’s spread out across the city and the police department.

I have a 4,000-person police department. We now have 447 sworn and 182 civilian COVID cases. Unfortunately, we can attribute at least three deaths to COVID. We’re really feeling it now. We’re getting hit hard in our communications bureau, as well as our patrol division.

Early on, back in March, we thought this would go away. It would be something we could mitigate and manage very quickly. We went into lockdown early. But we came out of lockdown because of COVID fatigue and some other things. Now I think folks have a mindset that we’ve been locked down so long that they’re willing to put on a mask as long as they can be out and about again. I see people taking more precautions.

[Read: I’ve been offered the COVID-19 vaccine. What do I do now?]

I’m not a fan of having to enforce gatherings and mask-wearing, but it seems we’re the only entity to do that. We have not gotten a lot of mask or gatherings violation calls of late. There was a time around Thanksgiving when we had a big soccer tournament going on, and I had to make sure our officers who responded there had masks to give people. We haven’t had to do a lot of that. It’s been more about making sure my employees wear their masks when they’re out in public and/or can’t socially distance.

We’re going to have a vaccination site specifically for the city of Phoenix employees at the Coliseum. Out of 4,000 employees, we have about 1,300 who say they want to be vaccinated. Fire was first, and we’re second. We’re planning to start this week, and it’s going to run Monday-Friday until we vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated.  

Mesa Assistant Chief Ed Wessing: COVID incident command group meets weekly

We have just shy of 1,400 employees, and 205 have tested positive since the inception of COVID, most of them since October. That increase is very similar to what we’re seeing in the community.

Operationally, we had multiple staffing scenarios in place in the event that we went above 25% of our patrol workforce out. We’ve come close to that, but we haven’t had to enact those operational plans. We’re hopeful that we won’t need to do that.

Fortunately, our positives were somewhat staggered. We never saw one particular workplace have a huge spike that negatively impacted our staffing and operations. It’s been a steady flow of 10-15 per week for the last five weeks.

We enacted a COVID incident command group back in March, and we still meet weekly. We were meeting daily during the first six months of the pandemic. We address everything from supplies to staffing to any operational needs.

We’ve been lucky that all our folks are coming back in relatively good health. We’ve had very few who have required any medical intervention. Unfortunately, the Chandler Police Department, our sister agency, just lost one of their officers to a COVID-related illness. It’s definitely something that concerns all the agencies here.

[Read: Police leaders discuss mandating COVID vaccinations]

We did an internal survey about three weeks ago, and 43% of our employees, sworn and non-sworn, indicated that they would take the vaccine. Working with our fire department and county health department, we are able to roll out vaccines for all employees, both sworn and non-sworn, starting January 13. That should wrap up by Saturday.

We’re already seeing more people willing to take it than initially indicated in our survey. I’d tell other agencies that they should expect those numbers to be higher once you actually have them sign up.

Our city set aside 80 hours of emergency leave for those who test positive. However, if an employee has an opportunity to take the vaccine, declines, and later tests positive, they will no longer have the option to use 80 hours of emergency leave. They’ll have to use their own time. That was a way for the city to incentivize their employees to get vaccinated.

One thing that just came up is that our city will only allow police officers who have been vaccinated to participate in off-duty police work for our Major League Baseball spring training games. So if officers want to work those spring training games, they’re going to have to get vaccinated.

Sedona Chief Charles Husted: We've only had one employee test positive 

Our city population is a little over 10,000, and we get 3-4 million visitors a year. Since March we’ve had 611 positive tests in our community. So we’re on a much smaller scale up here, but we still have the threat. Our community median age is over 60, so a lot of our folks are in that higher-risk range.

Our mayor was quick to roll out an emergency proclamation. A big part of that was the protocol for masks and social distancing. Our mayor and city leaders are proponents of education first, so we’ve taken a very education-oriented response. I have about 41 employees enhanced by a robust volunteer force of more than 40. We just don’t have the capacity to be out there chasing tourists or locals who aren’t wearing masks.

We’ve had some conflicts throughout and as of late. We’ve had some people go to stores that are mandating masks and claim that it’s their constitutional right to not wear a mask. We have to go there and mediate that. But we’ve only had to make a couple of arrests for disorderly conduct, and we have not actually made any citations or enforcement arrests for the mask ordinance itself.

[Read: COVID-19 vaccine FAQs for cops]

We’re fortunate to have a close relationship with our fire department, and we partnered with them to implement pretty strict PPE protocols back in March. We’re taking temperatures at the door and supplying N95s for the officers and making sure they have other masks for anyone they transport. We’ve only had one employee, a sergeant, test positive a couple of months ago. We were able to trace that back to training he attended. That’s been the only positive test we’ve had, and I think the PPE protocols we’ve had in place have prevented us from having more cases.

When this first hit in March, I suspended all volunteer activity. These are people who don’t get paid to come and serve, so I don’t want to put them in harm’s way. And the vast majority of our volunteers are 60 years or older. I got pushback from some who still wanted to come volunteer. We’ve slowly found some ways to reinstitute their work in areas where they don’t have to have much contact with the public. For instance, we do a “vacation watch” for second homeowners, and a volunteer can go by and make sure everything is okay at their house. But other things, like our fingerprinting program, remain closed, because it’s just not worth the risk at this point.

We’re not mandating the vaccine. We’re strongly recommending that people do it. In partnership with the county health department, we’re going to be vaccinated this Saturday. Between the volunteers and the police department, almost half have signed up. And I believe there are others who will be signing up.

Glendale Chief Chris Briggs: Our staffing levels have been hit by COVID

We have a proclamation from our mayor on mask-wearing, but the proclamation says education is preferred. We’re seeing most people wear masks.

Our staffing levels have been hit by COVID. We haven’t gotten into any danger points, but we are dealing with COVID throughout the organization, sworn and non-sworn. Staffing levels haven’t changed, and we haven’t upped or reduced anything.

I have 430 authorized sworn. Our total number of positive cases in the department is probably in the 80s now. Some have been symptomatic and had a test come back negative, but they had to have had it with all the symptoms they had.

We have to do our job, but officers are to wear their masks, and we try to have our contacts with the public outdoors. If they go to a residence and the call allows for it, they stay outside.

[Read: 3,300 officers respond to COVID vaccine poll: 38% say ‘Yes’ to vaccination]

A month ago the county started vaccinating 1A, which is medical and fire. This week the state opened up 1B priority, which includes law enforcement.

State Farm Stadium, where the Arizona Cardinals play, is serving as a vaccine distribution site, and we were part of a test group there on Monday. I had about 80 signed up for that. It opened up on Tuesday, and they’re pushing a lot of people through there. They did 600 on Monday for the dry run, and they vaccinated over 4,700 people on Wednesday. They already have over 90,000 people registered to get the vaccine there through the month of July. It’s a 24-hour operation, 7 days a week.

We don’t have a role at the stadium right now. The state police is handling security, and the National Guard is assisting as well.

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