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They’ve seen fellow Utah officers test positive for the coronavirus and they know cops in other states have died from the disease. But their job is not one they can do from home. As a result, for many in law enforcement a mask and gloves have become as vital as their gun and handcuffs.
Just how much this pandemic has changed how they approach the public largely depends on where they work.
Some officers are wearing personal protective equipment, commonly called PPE, on every call. For others, it’s their choice. Many Utah departments have taken steps to avoid going into the homes of people who call 911. They’re giving out more citations, bringing fewer people to jail and reducing the number of traffic stops.
“We’ve been very cautious,” said Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, whose city has been hit particularly hard by the virus. “I’ve never seen so much hand sanitizer and Lysol in my life.”
The national Fraternal Order of Police lists 38 police officers who’ve died in the pandemic, mostly in New York. So far, no Utah officers have died, but at least 10 have contracted the virus.
A positive test result sidelines an officer, but just being in contact with someone who tests positive can send officers into self-isolation. This can wreak havoc on departments, Utah Fraternal Order of Police President Ian Adams has said.
More masks and gloves
Salt Lake City police Sgt. Keith Horrocks said officers are trying to be careful, while at the same time responding to the calls they need to respond to.
“Obviously,” Horrocks said, “crime is not going to stop. The need for police is not going to stop.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, at minimum, all law enforcement wear an N95 respirator, although it notes that type of mask is in short supply and says surgical masks are an OK substitute for now. The center also says officers should have latex gloves, an isolation gown or disposable coveralls and some kind of eye protection, like goggles or a face shield.
But there’s a global shortage for much of that protective equipment, and in Utah, at least, about 80% of the state’s stockpile of N95 respirators are being doled out to medical professionals, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said at a March 31 news conference.
So that means some departments have to get creative with how they use masks, or even how they get them.
Moab Police Chief Bret Edge said his department, which consists of 17 sworn officers and two code enforcers, has had trouble finding face masks. The department ended up paying $500 for five boxes of surgical masks on Walmart’s website — boxes that usually cost $13 each.
“We did what we had to do,” Edge said, adding that it became a requirement this week that Moab’s officers wear a mask, eye protection and gloves anytime they’re out in public.
The shortage of protective equipment, especially in rural areas, hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Utah Attorney General’s Office has been gathering supplies donated by businesses, and recently distributed 9,000 masks and other protective gear to 53 agencies.
Salt Lake City officers are using the city’s emergency stockpile of N95 masks. For Provo police and the Piute County Sheriff’s Department, community members are bridging the gap by 3D printing masks. They aren’t as good as the N95s, but they’ll do.
Horrocks said SLCPD — which at one point had 14 of its staffers out because of possible exposure to the coronavirus — is outfitting its officers with masks, gloves and eyewear for every call.
Since the department has a limited supply of N95 masks, staffers are being asked to make them last a week. If an officer comes into contact with someone known to have the virus, Horrocks said, the officer would be issued a new mask.
The department also created a decontamination room where officers can disinfect their clothing and equipment if they have been exposed. The process takes about two hours to complete.
The idea came from the department’s newly hired health and safety officer. Salt Lake City also hired a wellness officer to address the department’s mental health needs. "They seem like simple things,” Horrocks said, “but in the grand scheme of officer wellness and public safety, they’re huge.”
Unified police on Wednesday had four staffers in self-isolation because of possible exposure, Gray said. None had tested positive.
Sgt. Melody Gray said Unified made masks mandatory early last week, after the CDC announced everyone should wear them. Before, each officer had a mask but could choose to wear it if they wanted. That’s still the policy at the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, though Sgt. Spencer Cannon said they’ve been encouraging deputies to wear more protective gear when they know they might be getting close to someone.
Capt. Taylor West, of the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies, who are also trained paramedics, have been required to wear surgical masks, gloves and glasses for several weeks now. If they are responding to a medical issue, they also are required to wear plastic gowns, face shields and N95 masks. They are also taking the temperatures of their deputies twice a day.
West said they are being “hyper sensitive” because if the coronavirus spreads among their deputies, it would be difficult for nearby city agencies to step in since they aren’t trained paramedics. The department has had one deputy test positive, someone who works at the jail.
“If we get infected and we can’t work it's going to be terrible for all of the citizens of Davis County who [need] paramedics and officers,” he said.
‘An obligation to keep the public safe’
The changes have gone beyond providing gloves and masks.
Police have canceled department tours and ride-alongs. They won’t go to people’s houses if they can take a report over the phone.
And they’ve tried to distance themselves from one another, as well. West, with Davis County, said gone are the days when deputies would chit-chat with one another after responding to a call. They try to avoid unnecessary socializing in the office, and those staffers who can are working from home.
And many agencies across the state are trying to avoid arresting people. The goal is to keep the jail populations down, fearing the disease could spread quickly through crowded lock-ups.
“That’s definitely a consideration that we’re taking,” Horrocks, with Salt Lake City police, said. “Not that we’re turning a blind eye to crime, but in the interim, we’re trying to make it so that there’s less contact between us and the public.”
Generally, in Salt Lake City, would-be criminals are cooperating. Over the past 28 days, city data shows all categories of crime have decreased throughout most of the city, with the notable exception of domestic violence and aggravated assault. Experts predicted that as victims self-isolate with their abusers, the potential for violence in homes increases.
But even if most crime is down Cannon, with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, said officers will still be out patrolling.
“We still have an obligation to keep the public safe,” he said, “because people who have an inclination to burglarize homes won’t have any less of an inclination. People who buy and sell drugs don’t suddenly go into active recovery because COVID-19 restrictions are in place.”