Does anyone know what the long-term impact on your health will be if you're exposed to someone manifesting the coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms? On behalf of 9/11 First Responders who were exposed to lethal toxins, I can tell you the resounding answer is no. While the experts are preaching about the need to use soap and water, gloves, hand sanitizers, and social distancing to protect yourself, it is equally important for you to document your exposure to this potentially fatal virus. I understand that documenting is as inspiring as moving a kidney stone, but all active law enforcement must record their exposure and save copies of their reports.
My concern lies in how officers who are symptomatic of the coronavirus now will be able to substantiate its impact on their health in the future. Current data indicates that a low percentage of those who get COVID-19 will die. However, as a 9/11 First Responder, I learned the hard way how important it is for a law enforcement officer to document their exposure to something that could impact their health later. To validate this concern, please consider a recent statement made by renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden regarding those who may get the coronavirus: "We don't know how many people will have scarring in the lungs that will be present five, 10, 15 years from now and cause shortness of breath and illness then" (Fox News 3/22/20). Please heed this caution: document your exposure now so you will have proof later if needed.
This recommendation has been reinforced strongly by Ed Mullins who is the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association president. Ed has done a great job disseminating officer safety information to his members at the onset of this pandemic. In a March 22, 2020 membership email, Ed reinforced the need to document virus exposure by stating, "As we have learned from our experience during 9/11, department records may become difficult to locate. You should not rely on the Department to maintain your reports." As a fellow 9/11 First Responder, Ed understands that officers need more than soap and gloves to protect their future health.
How else can documentation come into play in an officer's future? As the former director of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), I oversaw the Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) program. This federal program administers one-time payments to the survivors of a fallen public safety officer killed in the line of duty, and to an officer who is permanently and totally disabled as the result of a catastrophic injury (www.psob.gov). As of October 1, 2019, that amount is $365,670. The Public Safety Officers Benefits Act of 1976, along with its subsequent amendments, states that the cause of death or disability must be "the direct and proximate result of an injury sustained in the line of duty." In my former position, I agonized over reviewing director appeals where there was no documentation to support the assertion that the death or disability was caused by an undocumented past incident or sequence of prior toxin exposure. I pray none of you suffer in the future from your coronavirus exposure today, but I urge you to be prepared by preserving documentation that substantiates this.
In addition to serving as the BJA Director, I also served on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) Names Committee. This is the group that reviews and determines requests to have a fallen officer's name engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Similar in substance to the PSOB criteria, the NLEOMF requires that an officer's death is the "direct and proximate" result of a line of duty injury. In response to the growing number of 9/11 death claims, the NLEOMF has honored over 100 first responders by engraving their names on the sacred wall. Unfortunately, for cases where there is no documentation to substantiate an officer's exposure to 9/11 toxins, those officer's names remain under review. I don't want any law enforcement officer to die or become disabled from medical ailments associated with coronavirus exposure, but if the ultimate sacrifice or disability were to occur in the future, I want to ensure those officers receive the honors they deserve.
Whether you are on patrol, working in a correctional facility or functioning in an investigative capacity, you need to document your exposure to anyone who is symptomatic of COVID-19. When it comes to documenting your exposure, less is not more. Document the date, time, and place of occurrence, as well as your proximity to the alleged contaminated subject, what you observed in terms of their symptoms, and any witnesses. Sadly, this is going to be a daily occurrence for many officers. If you document this in your memo books, preserve them or make copies. If you complete a daily action report, save a copy for your personal file. This should include the signature of your supervisor. For those of you, like me who are not super tech savvy, get a large folder and label it COVID-19 Exposure. The goal is to keep copies of your documentation in one place. Truthfully, this folder may wind up in your storage, but it will be easy to retrieve in the event you or your family needs it.
As a result of the increasing number of state shelter-in-place orders, civilian tensions will likely escalate. This will increase the chances of your possibly intervening in a matter while off-duty. While functioning in your off-duty capacity, you will likely not be carrying a memo book or interview notebook. Please use whatever means you have to document your exposure to anyone demonstrating symptoms associated with the coronavirus. For the purposes of documentation, please treat it the same as an on-duty incident. Make sure you share your documentation with your department or agency so that it is official. Documentation is the best insurance policy you and your family can have to ensure you are protected in the future.
Irrespective of how much longer the coronavirus lasts, its wrath will be felt for years to come. Please keep a loaded pen and charged phone in reach so you can document your exposure timely and thoroughly. As you continue to keep the citizenry safe, I will pray for your safety and your wellness. Every government's primary responsibility is to keep its citizen's safe, and this is accomplished only through the risks you take and your sacrifice. Please protect your future and document your exposure today.
Jon Adler is the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation.