ATLANTA — Just like hospitals, grocery stores, and gas stations, law enforcement is an essential and critical need. But how do officers still do their jobs while social distancing?
Law enforcement is indeed a very hands-on job. But they, like everyone, are vulnerable to COVID19.
In the last few weeks, two Atlanta Police officers tested positive for coronavirus. And so, the new challenge is learning how to avoid contact or spreading the virus.
"Lot of law enforcement agencies are changing the way they do business in a variety of ways," said Steve Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
He’s also the chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, which is under a statewide stay-at-home order.
Casstevens is advising other police chiefs around the country to send a physical response like an officer, to essential calls of services, like violent crimes. Other crimes, he advises, can be handled smartly.
“They’re taking police reports over the phone, they’re taking police reports in the lobby, they’re taking online reports," Casstevens said.
In several Georgia cities, like Atlanta, officers are encouraged to give tickets or a copy of charges for non-violent crimes.
Atlanta Police said in a statement, “in limited circumstances in which there is no risk to the public – (officers are asked) to provide some minor, non-violent offenders with a copy of charges, rather than taking them to either the Fulton County or City of Atlanta jail.”
That can include things like traffic stops or theft under a certain dollar amount. But, those who are arrested, of course, will be and are given a face mask to wear to jail.
We asked several other police and sheriff departments, like Sandy Springs, Marietta, Cherokee, Spalding and Fulton Counties. They’re also limiting face to face interactions with law enforcement if it’s not a serious offense. (See their detailed responses below.)
“There’s a purpose to this social distancing, so we just reinforce that,” Casstevens said.
But, don’t think that officers aren’t patrolling. All agencies 11Alive talked to said they’re fully staffed.
"They’re available and their response time is probably going to be much quicker,” Casstevens said.
so, with most roads empty, will these practices help deter certain crimes?
The agencies we asked, for the most part, didn’t want to go into detail. But, overall said that calls for services are down.
Other major U.S. cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles have seen a dip in crime, too. But criminals, unfortunately, will still find targets where they can.
“You’re seeing more phone scams, especially targeting the elderly. Or people posing as the government, calling you and telling you they need your information so you can get your stimulus check," Casstevens said.
It's a good time to mention, no one from the government will ever call you and ask for personal information over the phone.
Officers and deputies are also carrying personal protective equipment (PPE).
And some departments, like Newnan Police, are asking the public to donate face masks to them.
With these changes, Casstevens added that there are some programs being put in place now that could carry over after the pandemic passes.
For instance, taking police reports online for crimes where you don’t need an officer but need a police report for insurance purposes - like losing a passport or a very minor car crash.
So, to recap, many agencies are forgoing physical arrests for minor, non-violent crimes. But, people will still be charged, no matter what the crime is. And officers are still on the roads and ready to respond.
“Don’t be hesitant to call 911 just as you have in the past. None of the response to those issues have changed," said Casstevens.
Here are several other responses (note: some agencies choose not to respond)
We continue to take steps to reduce the spread of the virus within the department. We are in the process of distributing masks to our officers, so they are able to wear them when interacting with the public. Additionally, arrestees will be required to wear a mask when being transported to jail. Our worksites continue to be cleaned by a professional decontamination company, with priority given to locations where officers have tested positive. In the interest of safety for our officers, as well as jail staff and inmates at both Fulton County and the City of Atlanta detention facilities, officers are also being encouraged to write a copy of charges, rather than make a physical arrest, for non-violent crimes where there is no danger to the public. We continue to emphasize that APD expected the COVID-19 pandemic would affect our staffing – as it has law enforcement agencies all across the nation - and developed a contingency plan with a priority on ensuring we are able to respond to emergency calls. We have experienced a lower call volume than usual in the past week, and there is no degradation to our ability to respond to 9-1-1 calls.
Sandy Springs Police
We are encouraging our residents to use our online reporting system should they need to file a non-emergency police report. Our online report system can be accessed by going to our website and clicking on “File Police Report” on the homepage. Additionally, the public can contact our dispatch communications center at 404-843-6670 should they need to speak to an officer to report a non-emergency crime over the phone. Our officers also try to handle calls that don’t require a face to face response over the phone.Sandy Springs PD remains committed to enforcing the law and preventing crime. Officers still have the power of discretion and in some cases, where appropriate, officers can issue a summons to offenders instead of making a physical arrest. Without looking at our official stats and only looking at daily shift pass-downs, property crimes (burglary, larcenies, entering-autos) seem to be decreasing while everyone is quarantined at home.
Thankfully MPD is fully staffed and fully functional during this global pandemic. Our officers are out on regular patrol, each equipped with their own Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit. With schools and most businesses closed, our officers are experiencing a lower than normal call volume which has given them the ability to increase their zone patrols.
Spalding Co. Sheriff
General Order: After consulting with our Judges, and only approved during this declared National, State, and Judicial emergency that has stayed all court dates and judicial deadlines, the following General Order will be effective immediately: 1. We are hereby suspending the arrests of persons with outstanding Violation of Probation warrants (VOP) issued by any court, and Failure to Appear in Court bench warrants (FTA) issued by any court. This includes all courts within Spalding County, the City of Griffin, outside of Spalding County, and courts outside of the state of Georgia. 2. If you have contact with anyone in these categories, you are to gather their contact information including address and phone number. They are to be instructed to contact their probation officer for further instructions, or the court issuing the bench warrant to re-set their cases. They must take this action within seventy-two hours after your encounter with them. The information you gather from the suspect is to be documented on a miscellaneous report and submitted via RMS.
Cherokee Co. Sheriff
We have worked closely with other police agencies in Cherokee County to scrutinize who gets arrested and booked into our facility. We have asked our deputies and other departments to consider issuing a citation for certain violations that traditionally may have resulted in an arrest. With that said, there are certain circumstances and crimes in which an arrest simply must be made. We feel that during this time, limiting the number of individuals brought into our facility reduces the chances of infecting our staff and the over 500 inmates currently incarcerated at the detention center.
Gwinnett Co. Police
We still have a fully functioning Uniform Division and Criminal Investigations Division. We are still taking all necessary reports and assigning cases to detectives for follow-up
DeKalb Co. Police
Our protocol has not changed.
Clayton Co. Police
Our response to these incidents has not changed.
Forsyth Co. Sheriff
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is citing and releasing most traffic offenses, but criminal acts are still being investigated. If a suspect is located, that individual will be arrested and incarcerated.
Athens-Clarke Sheriff Ira Edwards, Jr.
As part of the NSA Executive Committee, we have activated a law enforcement/ corrections emergency coordination and information sharing program to support the Sheriff's Offices throughout the U.S. in responding to the COVID19. We have brought together national health and operational experts to offer advice to Sheriff's on practices, and procedures for patrol and jail operations during this emergency. During the emergency, we must be even more vigilant in monitoring the safety, health, and well being of our employees as first responders are our most vital resource in getting through this successfully.
The Clarke County Sheriff's Office has partnered with the Northeast Georgia Food Bank to assist in the delivery of groceries to the elderly and the senior citizens that are not able to get out. On tomorrow our office will be partnering with Honey Bake Ham hear in Athens to deliver hams to needed families. This is just an example of how this pandemic has brought our community together. And with God's help and the continual partnership, we will get through this pandemic.
The Clarke County Sheriff's Office and ACCGov leadership continue to work behind the scenes to keep us all working, paid on time, and with sufficient leave and resources to guard our well-being and weather the storm. Right now, the virus seems like a slow-moving hurricane, and we’re seeing some clouds and feeling the breeze pick up. We are doing all the right things to avoid the worst, to prepare and persevere, and to continue to succeed in spite of any challenges.