By Heather Wright
While most of us are sheltering at home in light of Gov. Larry Hogan’s March 30 executive order, essential public safety workers — police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel — are still very much on the job. But the job, as it is, has changed in many ways in this time of COVID-19 and social distancing.
During a March 31 phone interview, Acting Lt. Zachary Nemser described how the typical day’s work for a patrolling officer “is a completely different job at this point.” In normal times, the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) prides itself on its community policing and its proactive face-to-face interactions with residents.
Currently, however, HCPD officers are practicing social distancing while serving the community. “The goal is to deter crime and to keep our officers as safe as possible,” said Nemser. “We’re taking all necessary steps to make sure officers are as safe as possible so that they can keep doing their jobs.”
According to a city-issued March 15 community advisory about changes to HCPD practices, dispatchers now screen crime-report calls to determine if anyone on location is demonstrating symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Additionally, non-emergency crime reports are taken over the phone “for crimes no longer in progress, or where no suspect is present,” and access to the Hyattsville Municipal Building is limited to city staff and individuals requiring emergency services. In-person meetings, ride-alongs and fingerprinting services have been suspended.
HCPD officers are trying to remain in their cars while on patrol unless a crime or emergency is in progress. According to Nemser, their focus is on remaining as visible as possible, while staying safe. Officers have protective gear, including masks and gloves, that they can wear if they encounter someone who might be symptomatic for COVID-19.
While always focused on ensuring safety and enforcing laws, HCPD has shifted its emphasis to promoting and enforcing public social distancing, including dispersing groups of more than 10 people and monitoring whether open businesses are essential. In contrast, minor traffic violations are less of a priority than usual, according to Nemser.
This shift in emphasis is consistent with practices in police departments across the nation. As quoted in The Washington Post, Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum said, “The last thing a police officer wants to do today is make an arrest unless they absolutely have to. Police officers are trying to do what the rest of America is doing, put distance between themselves and other people.”
When responding to emergency calls, HCPD officers accompanying the fire department and EMS to a location are remaining outside unless entry is absolutely necessary, said Nemser.
Due to the nature of their work, the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) has taken numerous steps in response to the coronavirus. According to the HVFD website (www.hvfd.com/covid19), they have established a COVID-19 Operations Committee, are administering twice daily health checks to on-duty personnel and have obtained food supplies for duty crews to cover all meals during this emergency.
In addition, several locally based members have moved into the firehouse to increase the number of live-in volunteers. Dave Ionnone, HVFD vice president, wrote in an email, “We have about a dozen men and women living at the firehouse in Firefighter/EMS and EMS capabilities, along with many local-based volunteers who are on scheduled shifts at the firehouse to ensure full staffing at all times.”
As of press time, no HCPD officer had tested positive for COVID-19, but Nemser stated that the department has “manpower planning” in place in case officers do get sick. “We’ll work through whatever we need to, when the time comes,” he said.
According to Jennifer Donelan, acting director of Public Information for Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department (PGFD), the department had one member who tested positive for COVID-19 as of March 31. She noted that “we did not release at which station that member serves because it would violate their rights to privacy.”
There have been some unintended benefits of social distancing. “We’ve seen a drastic decrease in crime,” said Nemser. Because residents are largely complying with the stay-at-home order, there is less opportunity for criminal activity. Nemser said that the department is closely monitoring some crime categories such as shoplifting and domestic violence, but has not seen an increase in those areas thus far.
This reduction in crime is consistent with a Washington Post analysis of reported crimes from more than a dozen cities — including D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas — that found a significant decline in crime that started mid-March when calls and orders for social distancing came into prominence.
Nemser said the department has been “incredibly pleased” with the community response to the executive orders. The HCPD has had to break up a few groups of more than 10 people and speak to some businesses that were not compliant, but all warned parties responded appropriately, and no further action has been warranted.
Nemser emphasized that the stay-at-home order does not keep people from going outside to exercise, walk their dog or engage in other essential activities. He encouraged residents to maintain social distancing, avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 and make trips outside the house for essential purposes only. And he urged residents to continue to call the police if they saw anything that looked suspicious.
“Keep safe. Keep your family safe,” said Nemser. “That’s what’s best for keeping officers safe so that they can protect the community.”
The HVFD is seeking donations of protective equipment, food and cleaning supplies at this time. For further details, visit www.hvfd.com/covid19 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not deliver items or money to the fire station without prior approval and coordination.