Police 'can't work at home,' plan for virus contingencies

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — As millions of Americans alter their routines in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing hasn't changed — criminals are still breaking the law and going to jail.

That's taxing Metro Detroit's law enforcement agencies as they scramble to provide their usual services while also preparing for worst-case scenarios, enforcing restrictions put in place because of the virus, and implementing in-house changes designed to prevent it from spreading.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

"A lot of people are working from home, but we can't work from home," Detroit police chief James Craig said. "In 43 years in law enforcement, I've never seen anything like this. This thing is changing every 12 hours, and that's affecting the way we police."

Police officials say they're planning for the possibility of large numbers of officers becoming infected with COVID-19.

"We're not there yet, but if that happens, we may have to make adjustments as to what service looks like," Craig said. 

A Detroit police officer and civilian employee have self-quarantined because they may have been in contact with someone who was infected. Craig said they both tested negative for the virus.

"Should there be a large outbreak in our department, we've discussed the worst-case scenarios," he said. "What if we have to shut down a police station? What if we have to quarantine members of the police department? That would change the way we police.

"Our goal is to not compromise priority one calls for service — but lower-level stuff like dogs barking and things like that, we may not respond if there’s a large-scale quarantine," Craig said.

"We'd also have to collapse non-essential services," Craig said. "Some investigations would be shut down. Violent crimes, sexual assaults, robberies, those are all essential. But in a dire staffing emergency, things like auto theft investigations would maybe be report only. We'd also cancel community meetings."

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak among his deputies would be especially troublesome because of mandated minimum jail staffing.

"I don’t know what else we could do if that happened," he said. "We're not like a police department. (Municipal police) can go into other cities to help out and answer calls in an emergency, but people who aren't trained can't just come into a jail and work. We can't just call DPD and say 'can you send us some officers?'

"If we had a large outbreak, we'd just have to keep the healthy people working," Napoleon said. "We'd sleep here. Years ago when I was with DPD, we had to sleep in the station during a bad snowstorm; we may have to plan for those type of arrangements."

Napoleon said he has ordered "no touch" thermometers, and has begun taking the temperature of all incoming inmates and deputies.

"If our officers bring someone in with signs of the virus, or they're complaining of illness, we have medical staff here 24 hours a day, and the inmate will be examined," Napoleon said.

"We have selected an area as a quarantine area," Napoleon said. "The good news is, we have plenty of room in the jail; my average population is 1,500-1,600, and we have room for almost 3,000. So, if we have to take on inmates from other counties during this crisis, we have room for other quarantine prisoners in the jail."

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said dispatchers are asking questions to callers specifically tailored to the coronavirus.

"Now, if someone calls 911, when a dispatcher asks 'what are your symptoms,' they're adding, 'Are you having difficulty breathing? Do you have a high temperature?' We're looking for symptoms specific to coronavirus as part of our question tree.

"We've also started asking those questions when inmates are screened coming into the jail," Bouchard said. "The good news is, in the jail, we've dealt with health challenges forever; inmates bring in MRSA, AIDS. We have people in isolation today with the flu."

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham agreed jail staff is better prepared than most organizations to try to prevent infectious diseases like the virus from spreading.

"Obviously, coronavirus is the big topic now, but every day, our staff has to worry about an inmate with tuberculosis, or any number of infectious diseases," he said. "Not to downplay this, and we're taking additional precautions, but on a daily basis we're busy trying to stop the spread of diseases."

Wickersham has implemented precautions that include taking property crime reports over the telephone, rather than responding in person. 

"We've also stopped having weekenders come in for the next few weeks," he said, referring to inmates whose sentences allow them to remain free during the week.

Craig said he also has implemented procedures he hopes will stave off a widespread infection among his staff.

"One challenge for a police department is, our scout cars are in service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we have to make sure they’re disinfected regularly, because there are prisoners getting in and out of those vehicles," Craig said.

Other preventive measures that have been taken include: 

  • Thursday meetings of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners have been suspended for two weeks.
  • All Detroit police management meetings will be held remotely.
  • The 32 graduates from the Detroit Police Academy will be sworn in at police headquarters Friday, with no friends or relatives allowed. A ceremony will be held at a later time, Craig said.
  • The Detroit Police Academy has been split into two classes, one during the day and the other in the afternoon, to restrict the number of cadets in class at one time.

Napoleon said jail visitation has been temporarily limited to attorneys.

"We have to let the lawyers in, but we're doing video visitation for the inmates, so we don't have people coming in direct contact with visitors," Napoleon said. "For those who can't afford it, we're offering free phone calls and video visitations for the week.

"We're aware that may lead to heightened tensions, but even the inmates will probably understand this is a different situation," Napoleon said. "They have access to TV in jail; they're aware it's a crisis."

Craig said a "local celebrity" was planning a birthday party at a Detroit nightclub Sunday that promised to attract hundreds of fans, in violation of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people

"We reached out to the organizers, and they weren't aware of the governor's order," said Craig, who declined to identify the celebrity. "They canceled the event with no problem."

Craig said organizers of the "Sunday Funday," in which muscle car drivers perform "donuts" and other stunts, also called off their event.

"Their leaders were also unaware of the governor's order," Craig said. "But when we explained it to them, they understood the importance of it."

Law enforcement agencies also are urging citizens to be vigilant during the crisis. In a statement Monday, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider warned Metro Detroiters to be on the watch for scam artists trying to take advantage of people's fears.

"There is no current medicine to treat or prevent Coronavirus," Schneider said in a statement. 

"We are also likely to see scam artists peddling fake Coronavirus test kits," he said.  "Be suspicious of Coronavirus 'test kits' sold on the internet. Coronavirus tests will come from medical professionals, government officials, and reputable sources."

Schneider also said residents should be skeptical of unsolicited emails, texts or calls about the virus and seek information from the Centers for Disease Control and other reputable sources.

raig said because the current situation is unique, a lot of things are being tweaked on the fly.

"I've worked through major civil unrest in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, and I can tell you, I don't think it was comparable to what we're dealing with now," he said.

"Maybe that's because this is so widespread," Craig said. "When something is localized, you can manage it in a different way. We can reach out to our neighbors in an emergency and ask for help — but they're dealing with the same situation we're dealing with."

Napoleon said he's expecting the unexpected.

"A lot of this is going to be responses based on circumstances that come up as they come up, so we have to be flexible for whatever happens," he said. "A crisis is a crisis, and I've dealt with quite a few of them.

"We just have to use the best experienced people, utilize our collective skill sets, and work together," Napoleon said. "We will get through this."


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN