As the coronavirus spreads across the country, law enforcement officials say the public should be prepared for interruptions to two basic functions of the criminal justice system: quick responses to all 911 calls, and the right to a speedy trial.
With little experience in managing a pandemic of this magnitude, some courthouses and police departments have been scrambling in recent days to ensure they can avoid a breakdown in public safety if the outbreak significantly widens in the United States. But many are doing so in a piecemeal fashion, without significant guidance or widespread agreement on what to prioritize and how to keep operating.
“If we lose 40 percent of our force, what would police service look like?” asked Chris Davis, a deputy police chief in Portland, Ore.
Departments were making plans this week to quarantine their own officers if needed and deciding how to “triage” essential safety functions, even as judges began to clear their courtrooms, postpone trials and restrict people who might be at risk of infection.
At the federal courts in Maryland on Thursday morning, anyone who had been in New Rochelle, N.Y., or Washington State in recent weeks, as well as several countries where the disease has also spread widely, was barred from entering the courthouse or probation offices by order of the chief federal district judge.
Some courthouses are planning to stay open but are distributing extra hand sanitizer or instructing anyone over 60 — those most vulnerable if they contract the disease — or who is pregnant not to report for jury duty.
Others, like the court system in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, are taking broader steps: On Wednesday, the county canceled all civil trials that require a jury for the remainder of the month.
Police officers and others who work in law enforcement and public safety face special challenges: They have extensive contact with the public, including people who call 911 for health emergencies, and are some of the least able to stay isolated if they are at risk of infection or infecting others. A major outbreak could test the ability of law enforcement to maintain public order in ways never seen before.
The contingency plans at many police departments include reallocating staff, deploying trainees and retirees and curtailing some service calls. To focus on critical needs, officials say they might have to respond to fewer minor car accidents, pull resource officers out of schools or delay responding to nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting and vandalism.
“You will see all-hands-on-deck moments, where you are canceling vacations and taking detectives out of burglary and property crimes, for example, and putting them back on the street,” said Robert Davis, a former police chief in San Jose, Calif., who is now a senior vice president at a prominent security risk management consulting firm.
Even in normal times, many patrol officers typically have hundreds of “contacts” with the public every week — on calls, in hospitals, at traffic stops. They eat in crowded restaurants and use public bathrooms. They work alongside firefighters, paramedics and other medical personnel. And they often share police cruisers with officers who work different shifts, all of which make their vehicles into what some officers call “moving petri dishes.”
In Sunnyvale, Calif., several police officers were performing chest compressions on a 72-year-old man last week to try save his life when a relative shared disturbing news: The man had been on a cruise ship with people who may have contracted the coronavirus.
The Police Department took no chances. It immediately quarantined the five officers and two firefighters who interacted with the man on Thursday, then sent them home while health officials ran tests.
Sunnyvale’s police chief, Phan S. Ngo, acknowledged that his response exceeded federal guidelines. But knowing the risks, he decided to be extra careful and isolate his officers until test results came back showing that the man, who did not survive, did not have the coronavirus.
Other departments have also had to take personnel off the streets. Three police officers and a quarter of the firefighters in Kirkland, Wash., had to be quarantined after an outbreak at a nursing home. And an employee at an F.B.I. office in Northern California tested positive for the virus, prompting the agency to send employees at that location home “until further notice.”
During the 2003 outbreak of SARS, another respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, more than 300 police officers in Toronto were quarantined. The epidemic led to about 40 deaths in the city. Half of Toronto’s 850 paramedics were also quarantined for 10 days, with four eventually hospitalized. Even though only six percent of the Toronto police force had to be isolated, the shortage of officers meant officials had to reprioritize how to respond to service calls.
Toronto later increased training and planning for disease outbreaks and created a plan to better track infected or exposed officers. It also stockpiled N95 respirator masks and antibacterial gel, which had been hard to obtain during the SARS emergency. The lessons prompted some police departments in the United States to update their plans for a pandemic.
One was the department in Overland Park, Kan., the state’s second-largest city. If a large number of police officers have to be quarantined during an outbreak, the city’s contingency plans include turning resource officers at the local high schools into patrol officers, and responding to fewer noninjury accidents and reports of retail theft.
“In order to maintain that 911 response,” said Frank Donchez, the police chief, “we’re going to scale back on other things. We’d be naïve to think that our officers wouldn’t be impacted.”
Steven R. Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said that American police departments were better trained for public health emergencies than they used to be because of a greater focus on disaster response that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But a widespread disease outbreak is a different kind of test, said Edward F. Davis, a former Boston police commissioner.
“The idea of a pandemic has always been a third rail,” he said. “It is so extreme, and the steps you may have to take are so unusual, that you don’t even want to contemplate it.”
Mr. Davis now runs his own business strategy and security services firm. While many cities now have a greater stock of hazmat equipment, he said, police and other emergency responders have often not been trained in their use.
And he worries about the ability of police officers to enforce orders calling for large-scale isolation. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the police had no authority to arrest anyone who went out on the street after the governor declared a voluntary lockdown, he said.
“I am not quite sure what happens if there are mass quarantines,” Mr. Davis said. “This is an area not practiced on, and it is untested.”
At some courthouses, fears of the virus are running so high that all courtroom business is being called off. While federal courthouses remain open in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., trials and all other proceedings that require lawyers, jurors or anyone else to show up in a courtroom have been suspended through at least the end of March.
The federal judge who issued that order, Ricardo S. Martinez, wrote that given the dangers posed by the virus, “the ends of justice served by ordering” the postponements “outweigh the best interests of the public and any defendant’s right to a speedy trial.”
In New Hampshire on Thursday morning, all criminal and civil cases in the state Superior Courts were canceled for 30 days, and juries were ordered not to report.
At many police departments, the focus now is on figuring out where to draw replacements from if their own patrol officers get sick or have to be quarantined, and what sort of investigations and other activities to trim back in a crisis.
At some agencies, like the Department of Public Safety in Kalamazoo, Mich., all sworn officers are cross-trained as police officers, firefighters and paramedics, which could make it easier to fill critical gaps if some of them have to be quarantined. But it also means that the agency could face more potential exposure.
“We have to deal with law enforcement and how that could figure into maintaining quarantines, for example, and we have first responders who may come into contact with people who have the virus,” said Jeff VanderWiere, an assistant chief of public safety.
Officers in some departments are privately questioning whether their forces are prepared. One officer in San Francisco, who asked not to be named because he feared he would be punished, said little had been done to plan for what would happen if many officers were exposed to the coronavirus, despite nearly 100 confirmed cases in the Bay Area.
“There is virtually no conversation taking place,” the officer said. “They’re bringing in truckloads of hand sanitizers, but that’s pretty much it.”
In a statement, the San Francisco police said that officers were trained and equipped to handle potential disease exposures, but that the department did not comment on “staffing and operational measures.”
Hard-hit police departments could benefit from emergency agreements among cities and states that allow departments to share officers and resources in times of need. When Robert Davis was the police chief in San Jose, the department had an arrangement with other cities in the county that allowed them to call on San Jose’s police helicopters for help, he said.
Those agreements have been used to help departments in cities that host political conventions or those that are recovering from the aftermath of a hurricane, said Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston.
Mr. Acevedo’s department is preparing an old jail to house inmates in case of an outbreak at the jail now in use. It is also finding places to potentially quarantine any Houston officers who become infected so they do not have to isolate themselves at home and risk infecting relatives.
If a large number of officers were infected or exposed, the department could lengthen shifts from eight hours to 12 hours for those still on the job. When Hurricane Harvey struck the city in 2017, Houston police officers worked six straight days without going home.
“They’d go off-line long enough to take a couple-hour nap, then go right back to work,” Chief Acevedo said. “I don’t think anybody should be worried about law enforcement shutting down in any community.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami.
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