ST. LOUIS — Leaders across the country are calling for social distancing, but for some professions, that simply isn't an option.
When it comes to law enforcement, how exactly can police officers practice social distancing?
Simply put, “They can’t,” according to Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association. “By the very nature of what they do, they have to put their hands on people and there is going to be contact.”
But departments are taking some steps to limit their contact with the public locally and nationwide due to coronavirus concerns as well as taking on some additional duties for citizens.
In Philadelphia, police are delaying arrests in drug, theft, prostitution and other crimes amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In St. Louis, where Roorda’s organization represents about 1,100 officers, the department announced Wednesday that it will continue to respond to all crimes, just maybe not in-person.
According to a press release, the department will limit in-person responses to calls for service involving certain incidents. With this change, certain incidents will have police reports that will be gathered by officers over the phone.
Some of the types of incidents include "larcenies, destruction of property, missing persons, thefts or car break-ins if they’re not in progress and if there are no suspects to pursue," the release said.
If you are the victim of one of the crimes described above, call the non-emergency line at 314-231-1212 or one of the following numbers:
- South Patrol Division (District 1 & 2): 314-444-0100
- Central Patrol Division (District 3 & 4): 314-444-2500
- North Patrol Division (District 5 & 6): 314-444-0001
"If an in-person response is not necessary, an officer will contact you by phone to discuss your incident as soon as possible," the release said.
The over-the-phone reporting system, known as the Telephone Reporting Unit, has been in place since 2015.
In addition to gathering police reports over the phone, 911 operators will be asking additional questions to determine if there is a health risk to officers and to make sure first responders can take proper precautions.
But Roorda said the department should be doing more to protect officers.
Chief John Hayden put out an email Friday asking that all officers make sure that their “WMD kits are readily accessible.” The Weapons of Mass Destruction kits were given to officers not long after the terrorist attacks of 201.
“The personal protective equipment contained within the kit should be with each officer during his/her tour of duty,” it read.
Roorda said the union is trying to buy gloves and sanitizer for officers.
In St. Louis County, the department has sent its “non-essential” personnel home to work, which includes the professional staff members of the Bureau of Research and Analysis, said Sgt. Benjamin Granda.
During a police board meeting Thursday, Chief Jon Belmar announced that about 42 School Resource Officers have been moved back onto the streets. He said personal protection equipment, including masks, sanitizer, gloves and other supplies have been ordered and their arrival is "on the horizon."
"This is a big lift not only on the county level or the state level, but on a national level," Belmar told the board.
Belmar added that all training and education courses for officers have been suspended as well as travel for department business.
In addition, the county police department said it will allow officers to take police reports of the phone for certain calls. The officers will be asked to "utilize their judgment, based upon the direction provided at roll call by supervisors" to determine if a report can be taken over the phone.
Officers will continue to report to the scene if a call warrants it, and no calls will go unanswered, the police said.
"It's not that they're not responding to calls, they're just changing how they respond to calls for now," said Joe Patterson, St. Louis County Police Association's Executive Director. "We are of course concerned about keeping the public safe, but our number one goal as an organization is making sure our officers are safe because, without them, there is no one to keep the public safe."
Patterson added that the county is exploring ways to quarantine officers who have been exposed so they do not have to go home and worry about infecting their families.
Other departments are also adapting.
In Ballwin, fingerprinting services have been suspended.
In Manchester and Chesterfield, officers are bringing medications and other essentials to the elderly who cannot leave their homes.
The City of St. Louis reported two cases of coronavirus, St. Louis County had five and St. Charles County had one, as of Wednesday evening.