DETROIT — At the “Police and Pancakes” breakfast sponsored by the Ninth Precinct on Detroit’s east side, some 90 uniformed officers, activists and students mingled inside a community center. They squeezed into line to reach a long table where four aluminum chafing dishes brimmed with scrambled eggs, Danishes, fruit and, of course, pancakes.
Marlowe Stoudamire, a neighborhood organizer, posted a cheerful Facebook video the day after the March 6 event, saying, “The whole conversation was about how to create a better community experience with the Detroit Police Department.”
As he spoke, Mr. Stoudamire mopped sweat from his bald pate repeatedly. Within a little more than two weeks, he was dead from Covid-19. The disease also sickened three department employees who had attended the breakfast and forced 25 into quarantine.
The coronavirus has cut a devastating path through the Detroit Police Department, making it one of the hardest-hit law enforcement agencies in the country. The head of the homicide department died. So did a 911 operator and a volunteer police chaplain. As recently as Thursday, nine people from the department remained hospitalized, fighting to survive.
The pancake breakfast was likely one of many points of infection. Out of about 2,800 uniformed officers and civilians who work for the department, 186 had tested positive for the virus by late last week, with more than 1,000 quarantined at some point.
“Officers were going out left and right,” said a veteran with more than 20 years of experience, who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “There were a few days that it became overwhelming.”
As the department succumbed to the virus, so did the city it polices. With widespread poverty and a largely African-American population that suffers from elevated rates of diabetes and hypertension, Detroit has been one of the worst-hit places in the country. The city with a population of 672,000 has had at least 7,605 known coronavirus cases and 605 deaths.
Chief James Craig, a Detroit native, tested positive on March 27 and stayed isolated at home until Thursday.
The chief, who spent 28 years with the Los Angeles police before taking the top job at the department where he started as a patrol officer, said that nothing in his long career — not mass shootings, not earthquakes, not the riots that followed the Rodney King beating — had prepared him for the pandemic.
“This unknown enemy that we fight is real,” he said at his first news conference after leaving his sick bed. “None of us have had to deal with anything like this.”
Officers patrolling the streets and investigating crimes said the virus had ratcheted up stress and disrupted all the standard rhythms of police work. Instead of roll call, officers get temperature checks and an envelope with the day’s orders. They give arrested people masks and wipe down patrol cars after every encounter.
“I have to come into work concerned about whether I’m going to be the next victim or not,” said Officer Marc Perez, fresh out of the police academy, after a patrol shift through Northwest Detroit. “There’s only so much an officer can do to prevent himself from coming into contact with that actual virus. Every day is stressful for me.”
Detectives who are used to sitting across a table from suspects are now doing interviews on the phone, unable to read clues like body language, mannerisms and facial expressions, said Lt. Rebecca McKay, an investigator with the major crimes unit. Even in-person interviews at the jail now have to be distant, behind glass.
“It’s hard to build a rapport or any kind of relationship with an offender,” she said, “when you have a glass between you, and you have to yell back and forth to get a statement.”
At the best of times, Detroit wrestles with its crime rate. The city and its police force have improved markedly since Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. At the time, the police took so long to respond to 911 calls that some people didn’t bother phoning.
The pandemic has complicated things. Crime, on an upward trajectory this year, appeared to to stall initially in March as more people stayed home. But it escalated during the first week in April, with eight homicides and 27 nonfatal shootings.
Most of the homicides were drug-related, but officers said they were also intervening in more domestic disputes. “Dial-a-Dope” delivery services for marijuana were in high demand, Chief Craig said, with buyers and sellers trying to rob each other.
“We are trying to balance that spike in violent crime while knowing that we have to reduce manpower. It is hard,” said Evette Griffie, a member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian oversight panel.
For the force to cope as the virus swept through the city, the chief modified the rule book in late March to reduce encounters between officers and the public. Smaller misdemeanors like running a red light could be let go, he said — enforcing them wasn’t worth the health risk for both officers and perpetrators.
That didn’t mean officers were turning a blind eye to crime, Lieutenant McKay said. They just made more judgment calls. “We have been told to use caution and discretion wherever possible with regard to lower-end crimes,” she said, “basically for our own safety.”
The new policy, combined with fewer officers on the streets and a stay-at-home order issued by Michigan’s governor on March 24, resulted in a marked drop in arrests. From March 24 to April 14, the police made approximately 736, according to official figures — less than half of the 1,518 arrests in the same period last year.
But they have had to ramp up responses to medical calls and take steps to enforce the stay-at-home order, which was reinforced on April 2 with a $1,000 fine for violators. On April 8, to take just one day, the police answered 952 complaints about inappropriate gatherings and issued 56 citations, Deputy Chief James White said at a recent news conference.
Officer Nelson Hammons, who has three years on the force, said tensions between police officers and the community seemed to have eased somewhat.
“Normally, you see people whenever they’re having a really bad day,” he said. “Now people want to ask questions all the time. People are concerned, and they look to us for answers.”
Still, suspicious die hard. On his recent shift, Officer Perez, the recent academy graduate, extended a box of masks toward a man walking into a liquor store, offering him one.
“Aw, hell no,” the man said, jolting backward. It took him a moment to realize that the officer wasn’t hassling him.
“I thought you were going to arrest me,” he said, and the two men laughed.
Throughout the past few weeks, as more officers were infected or exposed and pulled from duty, the workload seemed to double overnight, officers said, and a sense of dread swept through the department.
“When it first jumped off, there was nothing but fear,” said the 20-year veteran, adding that everyone was especially worried about taking the virus home.
Chief Craig said that when he first got sick, he thought it was seasonal allergies. But soon, fever, chills, a loss of appetite and lethargy knocked him out of commission for a few days. “Just talking on the phone was a bit of a challenge,” he said.
An avid weight lifter, he tried to keep it up throughout his quarantine — with his doctors and family taking a dim view of his efforts. He said he can still only press half as many weights on his home lifting machine as he could previously.
Things in the department have started to improve in recent days. The development of a 15-minute diagnostic test allowed more than 700 quarantined employees to return to work after they tested negative, Chief Craig said. But more than 300 remain isolated.
For many people in the department, the loss of Capt. Jonathan Parnell, 50, the city’s head of homicide and a 31-year veteran, was one of biggest blows. He began feeling sick on March 18, a Wednesday, although the diagnosis was not confirmed right away.
On Friday, fellow officers were surprised when the captain — known to be the last to leave any surveillance job — said he wanted to go home to lie down.
Over the weekend, he had such trouble breathing that he started communicating only by text message, said his son, Jonathan Parnell II. Then late Tuesday, Captain Parnell walked into the bathroom, closed the door, collapsed and died.
The speed with which the disease struck him down left his son in shock. “I thought he was invincible,” Mr. Parnell said.
John Eligon reported from Detroit and Neil MacFarquhar from New York.
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