PENN YAN — Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike has been with the department for nearly 50 years and sheriff for almost 30 and has never seen the likes of what law enforcement officers — and other first responders — are dealing with these days due to COVID-19.
Not even close.
“These are certainly unusual times. We’ve prepared for SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and other things to some extent, but this thing has really been hyped,” Spike said. “We are trying to get the message out, like everybody else, that social distancing is one of the most important things we can do now. The problem is, with law enforcement and other first responders like EMS, sometimes you have to touch people.”
Spike, other local sheriffs and police chiefs responded to the Times when asked what measures their agencies are taking in the age of the coronavirus. While those measures are numerous, their message is simple.
“ALL public safety needs will be met,” Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson said. “We will always be responding to emergency calls and assisting with EMS and fire calls when needed.”
That said, it’s certainly not business as usual for police these days. While officers often handle a complaint or non-emergency by going to the scene, that may not be the case as long as COVID-19 is around.
“All non-emergencies, depending on the nature, that require law enforcement will be handled by phone in order to limit contact,” Seneca Falls Police Chief Stu Peenstra said. “If we respond, people may be asked to step outside for social distancing.”
Waterloo Police Chief Jason Godley has cut his clerical staff hours to 8:30 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday. After that, residents are being asked to use the call box — for non-emergencies — at the police station and an officer will respond.
“We ask the public to remain calm during this unprecedented time,” he said. “We need to all work together to ensure the health and safety of our community.”
To maintain social distancing, many police agencies are not fingerprinting and photographing people they arrest, putting that off until a later time. That includes state police, which are also suspending child safety seat checks and other services.
“While we understand that suspending these services is an inconvenience to the public, this is an extraordinary circumstance,” state police Superintendent Keith Corlett said.
“We will still be making arrests, but we may be giving people appearance tickets and we are eliminating close contact as much as we can,” Canandaigua Police Chief Stephen Hedworth said. “We will still do the day-to-day stuff we normally do, but if we start to get sick and infect other people, that’s a real problem.”
If an officer has to respond to a home, they likely will ask anyone they speak with to step outside.
“911 calls that can be handled by phone will be. Deputies will be exercising social distancing when in contact with the public, will not enter residences unless absolutely necessary, will not place people in the patrol vehicle unless absolutely necessary, and will handle complaints by phone when appropriate,” said Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts.
People who call 911 also will be asked screening questions if police need to respond to a scene. Spike said while his officers have protective masks and disposable gloves, they haven’t had to use them yet.
“Based on the answers we get to the screening questions, we will wear the appropriate equipment,” he said. “If it comes to that, we’re going to garb up with masks, face shields, you name it.”
Officers also are sanitizing their equipment and patrol vehicles.
If it’s not enough that people — especially the elderly — are on edge because of the coronavirus, they also are being subjected to increasing scams.
“Do not respond to emails asking you to open an attachment and see the latest statistics. If you click on the attachment or embedded link, you’re likely to download malicious software onto your device,” Henderson said. “Scammers have posted ads that claim to offer treatment or cures for the coronavirus. The ads often try to create a sense of urgency — for instance ‘Buy now, limited supply.’”
All the sheriffs and police chiefs who responded for this article said despite COVID-19, their mission remains the same. They also urged people to look at their local agency’s website or social media platforms for more information.
“First and foremost, we are still providing the same high level of service, as are all first responders. We deal with people with infectious diseases almost every day, so we were already kind of set up for this,” Hedworth said. “This has the potential to affect a lot of people, so we will have to adjust the next few weeks. That is what we do.”