Coffee with a Cop, handshakes, even meeting amongst themselves are on hold as local police maintain a distance from others while doing their jobs under the “new normal.”
Social distancing and disinfecting surfaces have become part of the daily routine for police officers in an effort to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19, according to local police officials.
Montgomery County dispatch asks all 911 callers if they have any symptoms of the virus so responding officers can take protective measures, police chiefs said. Access to departments is limited with more calls handled over the phone.
Changes began three weeks ago, after receiving information from the county and a lot of conversations among chiefs, and have ramped up since, Upper Dublin Police Chief Francis Wheatley said.
“We immediately put out directives to curtail how we responded to medical facilities such as assisted living,” Wheatley said.
Previously officers would assist an ambulance, but now, “with cooperation with EMS,” officers respond on standby and don’t enter to ensure “we are not bringing anything into the facility or taking anything out,” he said.
Residential medical calls are handled similarly, he said.
All officers have been issued N95 masks and gloves to ensure they have the proper protective wear, if they’re dealing with someone who might have the virus, Wheatley said.
“As things progressed and we continued to get information from the county health department … we’re doing traffic enforcement when we see violations, but we’re not doing state-funded aggressive driver details,” he said, adding “there has been a significant decrease in traffic.”
Officers have been told to “use common sense when interacting with the public,” talking with social-distancing, no handshakes, Wheatley said. They’re also “starting to handle some 911 calls by phone.”
Inside the station, instead of meeting walk-ins in the lobby, an officer will speak with the person through a glass window, he said.
Similarly, in Ambler, “We’re still patrolling, police services are 24/7,” police Chief Robert Hoffman said, but “if it’s a minor incident, we’re asking people to step outside to maintain a 6-foot distance.”
“We have masks and gloves and are using common sense — trying to limit exposure to essential situations,” he said.
Interactions between officers has also been limited.
“We eliminated roll calls — briefs are by phone now, and we’re limiting officers into the station one at a time, including in certain rooms,” Wheatley said.
Officers must wipe down a car when done using it and wash hands before going into an office, he said. There are supplies with Clorox and bleach to clean all surfaces several times a day and a cleaning crew comes in the end of every day, he said.
The Abington Police Department has gone to a “virtual roll call through email,” Deputy Chief Kelley Warner said. “Officers are exchanging radios and keys outside, not in one small area.”
Officers have Lysol spray and Clorox wipes “to wipe down vehicles when they begin and end a shift,” she said. They always have gloves and now all have a 95N mask and goggles “to don if they deem it necessary in an emergency,” she said. If it’s a fall, the officer will stand by and assist EMS and will go inside for a medical emergency, “but not without protective gear.”
Calls that don’t require a police response are being done over the phone, but officers respond to any “in progress” calls and as they normally would to calls such as a burglary, Warner said.
“We’re out there policing; our guys are showing up, anxious to work, it’s a challenge for them. They want to do their job,” she said.
Lower Gwynedd was “on day nine of extreme social distancing within the department,” police Chief Paul Kenny said March 13. “We’re totally separated. No two officers are allowed in the same room or locker room together. Changeover of shifts is not all at one time.
“Officers have to wash their hands before they go into the squad room and on the way out,” he said. “There’s extreme cleaning of vehicles at the beginning and end of each shift.”
The department has protective gear for the officers, but with only 18 “we can’t afford to lose four or five guys,” Kenny said. “We’d be asking for help really quick.
“Officers take their temperature at the beginning of every shift — if they have a temperature they are not to come to work.
“We were one of the first agencies exposed to this,” he said, noting two residents were diagnosed early on. “We knew it was already here so our processes went into effect immediately.
“We’re doing more work by phone,” Kenny said. “If face-to-face, we prefer to talk in their driveway or front lawn, but there may be a time for a 911 call where we just have to act. If someone is having distress breathing or heart failure, we’re going in.”
Some nonessential civilian staff and those over 60 have been told not to report to work, Wheatley said. Detectives, who normally work in close proximity, have been moved to different parts of the building for social distancing, he said.
Once a person is removed from a cell, a company the department contracts with sanitizes the cell block, he said.
“We have a very strict policy. If you show any symptoms, you’re told to call out sick and not come to work until the fever drops to normal plus seven additional days at this point,” Wheatley said. The county health department has an online application for all emergency responders to request a test if they have symptoms, he said.
“If they don’t have all the symptoms, they’re told to quarantine themselves. You have to have all three to get tested.”
Family members of medical professionals and first responders are also impacted, he said.
“We’re trying to get information out to families,” said Wheatley, noting he was “drafting a letter to families about measures we’re taking. We have to manage our officers and family members, as well.”
“Time will tell” whether the directives for people to stay home will lead to more domestic incidents, several chiefs said.
“We’re hoping the public plays their role and does the right thing,” Chief Hoffman said. “Everybody has to use common sense.”
“So far, we’re seeing great cooperation,” Chief Kenny said. “Traffic and calls for service are down. People are staying at home.”
Kenny has been checking the markets, pharmacies and Wawa, and “every manager has been saying people are being polite,” he said. “We’re watching that and want to make sure that continues.
“I know people are scared and worried. We want them to know we’re looking out for them.”