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Baltimore police, fire departments working to prepare for increases in coronavirus cases

The Baltimore police and fire departments, like agencies across the country, are preparing for additional cases of the coronavirus that are likely to arise, including contingencies for if their own rank-and-file become infected with the disease.

“We are taking additional precautions as needed if responders need to be quarantined,” police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said in a statement. “The city is looking at all contingencies to include adding additional personnel if needed. This creates an intentional protection effort – as we all continue to practice safety precautions surrounding COVID-19.”

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Additionally, she said the police and fire agencies are working with the Department of General Services to increase disinfecting at facilities, and are distributing personal protective equipment to officers and firefighters.

Last week, the department distributed a memo and a video from Police Commissioner Michael Harrison asking for officers to take additional measures to stay safe. Baltimore’s 911 operators are questioning callers to screen for any potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus, and the department has ordered additional personal protective equipment, such as face masks, for officers who must interact with a person possibly exposed to the virus.

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“Keeping every member of our department safe and knowledgeable of operating procedure remains my highest priority,” Harrison said in the video. He also said he’s been speaking with department leaders across the country to ensure the department is using best practices.

Ken Thompson, the head of the team monitoring the department’s consent decree compliance, said coronavirus concerns have resulted in the department stopping in-service training on how to handle stops, searches, and the arrest policy that all officers must be trained.

“It’s really the most critical," Thompson said. “That is where the police and the public have the most engagement.”

But Thompson said training for recruits at the academy is continuing with additional precautions. He said the work of the monitoring team, such as evaluating department use of force and internal affairs data, is continuing.

Eight officers were sent home to quarantine Friday after an arrestee claimed he had tested positive for the coronavirus to avoid going to jail. The man tested negative, however, and the officers were able to return to work.

As of Wednesday, Baltimore had at least five confirmed cases of COVID-19, with evidence of community transmission. The state has reported 85 cases.

The pandemic comes as the department is trying to rebuild its force, which is currently short about 350 officers. Baltimore Police have been trying to beef up recruiting and retaining more officers, but also finding ways to reduce the workload for officers, such as encouraging residents with non-emergency calls to file reports online.

In response to the outbreak, some departments elsewhere have announced more drastic measures. Los Angeles Police, for example, are moving half of all detectives to patrol to help respond to calls, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has begun citing and releasing more people for less serious charges to avoid housing them in the local jail, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Other departments have announced additional measures to reduce officers’ possible exposure. Police in Denver and Aurora, Colo. are no longer sending officers to low-level crimes, according to the Denver Post newspaper.

Seattle Police have closed its headquarters and local precincts to the public to avoid exposure.

A 2007 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies and identifies best practices for policing offered recommendations to departments, including preparing plans to address the possibility of losing personnel. Officers are projected to have higher rates of infections “because of the nature of their work,” the report said.

The report said that among “jurisdictions affected by past flu pandemics, between 25 and 35 percent of the population was infected.”

As other public gatherings have been forced to cancel because of the outbreak, the monitoring team canceled its upcoming community meeting, and Thompson said the federal judge enforcing the consent decree will have to determine whether to postpone an upcoming public hearing before the court.

The police department also had to cancel two upcoming meetings scheduled for this month on the controversial surveillance plane program.

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