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Baltimore police already don’t have enough officers. What happens when they get sick from coronavirus? | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore Police Department and other departments need to make sure they are protecting officers during the coronavirus epidemic.
The Baltimore Police Department and other departments need to make sure they are protecting officers during the coronavirus epidemic.(Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

Public safety depends on the ability of our law enforcement agencies to continue to operate at full capacity at the least. Among other things, during the coronavirus pandemic that means safeguarding the health of front line employees and carefully monitoring for signs of infection, in order to prevent the transmission of the virus to other employees.

This is even more critical in Baltimore in light of significant demands placed on the police department and the significant shortage of officers.

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Law enforcement organizations must maintain a state of operational readiness throughout this event. The most important ingredient to maintaining readiness is a healthy workforce able to deliver services that are absolutely essential to maintaining even a basic level of public safety. The Baltimore Police Department is particularly vulnerable to a loss of officers due to illness because it is already woefully understaffed by hundreds of officers and it faces a high volume of serious, violent crime.

Maintaining even the minimum level of police protection in Baltimore will only happen if the police department takes unprecedented, proactive measures to protect officers and other essential employees from infection, then identifying and quarantining infected employees.

Preventative measures put in place so far are insufficient to adequately protect these mission-critical first responders from acquiring and spreading infections to each other and members of the community. In short, the police department must become much more proactive about monitoring the health of its front line employees in order to minimize the risk of widespread infection.

The centerpiece of the current strategy is responding to fewer routine calls and allowing officers to interact less often with potentially infected individuals. This is a good start, but it’s just not nearly enough.

Very significant measures must be put into place now to manage the imminent risk to public safety presented by the widespread infection of police department personnel. Even a modest outbreak within the department could dangerously reduce police staffing in a city in which policing needs far outstrip available resources, even in the best of times.

Internal leadership messages to rank-and-file employees have not indicated any plan to medically monitor employees’ temperatures or other early signs of infection, at regular intervals. Doing so could help prevent the rapid spread of the virus to other officers. Several days ago, the Miami Police Department began proactively monitoring even asymptomatic employees’ temperatures.

Based on what little we know about this virus, any system that relies on employees’ assessment of their own health would be unreliable at best.

According to officers I have spoken with, there have also been problems acquiring and distributing cleaning and hygiene supplies throughout the agency. The Fraternal Order of Police also recently confirmed that the police department is relying on a limited quantities of hand sanitizer and other protective equipment. The department must identify a sustainable source of quantities of hygiene and personal protective supplies to protect its employees and to prevent widespread infection.

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When COVID-19 tests are available, first responders and health care providers who become symptomatic, must be able to receive testing immediately.

In light of the organizational risk to the police department, it is a disconcerting thought that there are no available alternatives to maintain the security of the city. While Gov. Larry Hogan has activated the Maryland National Guard, it is not a law enforcement agency and not able to assume the Baltimore department’s policing role.

And unlike the response to the riots of 2015, county law enforcement agencies must remain in their communities, as they will all be facing the same challenges. The time is now to put out a call to recently separated Baltimore police officers to return, even if only temporarily, to help support the city and their comrades during this crisis.

To the casual observer, it appears that the police department and city government leaders are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, with little more than feel-good preparation measures. These measures largely ignore the elephant in the room — widespread infection of first responders and how to maintain continuity of service if that should happen.

Based on what we have already seen abroad, hoping for the best just isn’t going to work this time. It is time to get very serious about the sobering challenges that lie ahead.

Jason Johnson (jason@leldf.org) is a former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. Since January 2019 he has served as president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which educates the public about risks to police officers and raises funds to defend wrongfully accused officers.

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