An exclusive POLICE survey of law enforcement officers working during the coronavirus crisis paints a picture of the nation's police as not always properly equipped to protect themselves from the disease, confused by their commanders' and political leaders' rules of engagement, and praying the conditions they now face are not the new normal.
POLICE polled subscribers of the OnTarget Newsletter and more than 700 responded to the survey in less than 24 hours.
The findings were sometimes surprising.
Asked if their workload had increased because of social distancing rules, 53% of officers said they were actually doing less work. This is likely because of instructions from command to minimize contact with the public and limit response to the most serious calls. In contrast 27% of respondents said their workload had increased, and 20% said it had not changed.
Sometimes they were not surprising.
The respondents confirmed the many stories in the mainstream press about law enforcement agencies coping with COVID-19 cases. Some 17% said officers on their agencies had tested positive for coronavirus. But the good news is that 72% said no officers in their agencies had tested positive. About 11% did not have an answer.
As far as personal contact with the virus, most respondents (44%) said they did not know if they had been exposed.
Exposure, of course, is most likely to come from officers who contacted a member of the public or from a member of the public. The survey has some good news on this issue. Some 89% of respondents say they and/or their agencies are cleaning and even disinfecting their equipment and vehicles after contact with a subject.
Sadly, responses to two more questions illustrated the problems law enforcement officers are facing when they need the supplies, wearables, and equipment to protect themselves from the virus and to clean hands and gear.
The answers to the first question: "Is your agency providing you with coronavirus protection such as gowns, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer, N95 masks, wipes?" A full 87% of respondents said their agencies are providing them with this vital gear.
But that was not the final answer. We also asked: "What one piece of coronavirus protection do you need most that your agency is not providing?"
The answers to this fill-in-the-blank question show that certain protective items are in very short supply, even for first responders. Hand sanitizer is in very high demand. Some agencies are using expired sanitizer, some are receiving bottles of the stuff made at local distilleries, and some just don't have it at all. Masks are another much needed item. Some agencies are issuing one N-95 mask to officers and telling them to clean the mask after each use. "We need more of everything to avoid having to clean and reuse items intended to be discarded after one use," one officer wrote. Wipes, gloves, eye protection, and gowns are are also in short supply.
One respondent wrote: "All personal protective equipment is in limited to no supply. We are taking public donations to keep our officers in gloves and sanitizer. We are purchasing PPE from Ebay to meet our immediate needs."
Even officers who work on agencies that provide all necessary PPE are worried about how long that will be the case. "Keeping up with resupply will soon be a problem," one officer wrote.
In addition to a great need for PPE, officers say they are coping with a lot of confusion about what to do on duty. "We need clear guidelines on self-initiated activity. We are being told to continue to be proactive but limit our exposure," one respondent wrote.
The confusion about proactive police actions during the coronavirus crisis may be a reason that 55% of officers say crime is decreasing in their jurisdictions. It could also be that even criminals are practicing social distancing and really don't want to go to jail at this time.
Law enforcement officers are dealing with a great deal of stress during the coronavirus crisis. So we asked how they are coping with it and what they are doing. Some are avoiding the news. Some are exercising at higher intensity than normal. Some are drawing comfort from friends or pets. Some are drawing comfort from their faith. Some are drinking and eating more than in the past. Some are consulting counselors and chaplains that work with their agencies. Some are leaning on their police colleagues.
Many officers have one overriding concern: They are worried about their families. One officer wrote: "You have to deal with it day by day. This isn't the first bad thing to happen, and it won't be the last. You just pray that you don't bring this deadly disease home to your family. This is much more stressful than dealing with the criminals."