As COVID-19 spreads, law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Washington are preparing, and in some cases even changing, how they’ll respond to calls for service.
The Portland Police Bureau said Friday it was taking steps to limit face-to-face interactions with the public and expanding the ability to file police reports online and by phone in order to mitigate the continued spread of the COVID-19 disease.
Bureau leaders say they’ll still respond in person to many calls.
“Most disturbances, thefts in progress, burglaries, welfare checks, injury vehicles crashes, and many other calls will still be dispatched,” bureau officials said in a release.
Portland officers will also temporarily stop appearing at community events. Criminal investigations will continue and the priority for officers will be life-threatening emergencies as well as calls that cannot be taken online or over the phone.
“We value our face-to-face interactions with the public, but recognize the need to do our part to protect the public and our members,” Chief Jami Resch said in a statement. “We will continue to keep the public informed with relevant information and we appreciate the public’s understanding of our need to limit face-to-face contacts for the benefit of all.”
The new coronavirus is spreading across the Pacific Northwest. Here some basic things to know:
• Coronavirus is more severe and more contagious than the flu. Take it seriously but don’t panic.
• The elderly and immune-compromised are most at-risk, but everyone can get sick.
• If you are sick stay home, self-quarantine and call your doctor.
• Practice social distancing. Avoid large gatherings, or small gatherings in tight spaces. At-risk people and people with underlying conditions should stay at home.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer is a backup option.
• Cough into a sleeve. Wash hands after coughing. Avoid touching your face.
• Sterilize things you touch often, like computers, phones, keys, and tablets.
• If you have prescriptions, call your doctor and ask for a 3-month supply in case of drug shortages.
Like police agencies across Oregon and Washington, Portland leaders say they’re making plans for how to continue to meet public safety needs if a significant number of officers get sick with the virus and staffing levels are affected.
In Southwest Washington, law enforcement is trying to incorporate some social distancing steps.
The Vancouver Police Department don’t have the ability to take police reports online. Spokeswoman Kim Kapp said officers may ask members of the public to talk outside rather in a person’s home or on the phone when possible.
She said officers have some protective gear, like gloves, already as part of their regular kit.
“Nothing is really changing for the public,” Kapp said.
The Washington County Sheriffs Office is rolling out a new system that will allow reports online. The system was in the works long before the coronavirus pandemic.
Individuals who are arrested and brought into the jail are immediately screened. Deputies are asking whether inmates had any flu symptoms in the last 14 days and whether they’ve traveled outside the United States in the last month.
“If either of those questions are answered yes, they’re immediately seen by a nurse and evaluated a little further,” said Sgt. Danny DiPietro. A nurse determines whether an inmate needs to go to the hospital for further evaluation, he said.
“Our whole goal in that is to make sure we do everything we can to keep the coronavirus outside of our jail,” DiPietro said. “Obviously, the jail, there are individuals that are close together, close contact at times, we want to make sure we do everything we can.”
DiPietro said they’re asking patrol deputies to use the phone more often.
“We’re not limiting calls, but any kind of call that we can take over the phone, we’re going to,” he said. “All that’s going to do is limit our exposures to a lot of people.”
For now, DiPietor said, they’re not limiting calls based on priority level. “That could change any minute,” he added.
Sgt. William Bailey with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office said his agency is encouraging officers to work over the phone when possible. They’ve also postponed jail tours and ride alongs with members of the public to help increase social distancing and attempt to keep officers and jail inmates safe.
“For first responders, there are certain things we can’t not go to,” Bailey said. He said the entire department will have eye protection by Monday. Deputies already have gloves as well as respirators for about 80% of its patrol deputies.
Bailey said they’re also reminding local agencies to not arrest people unless absolutely necessary.
“If you can cite release someone, don’t bring them to the jail,” especially if they have flu like symptoms, Bailey said.
Deschutes County Jail also has six cells in its medical unit that have negative air pressure, he said, so ventilation in those cell doesn’t escape to others.
“We have the ability to house some inmates that may contract COVID-19,” he said.