In these pandemic times, local police and rescue agencies have had to adapt and adjust the way they approach the public, both physically and philosophically.
“First and foremost, we have had to create our own version of social distancing, and how we interact with the public,” said New Paltz Police lieutenant Rob Lucchesi. “We pride ourselves on being a proactive department, and emphasize community policing and engaging with residents. But now that we’re being faced with a pandemic, we’re having to do things that are in direct contrast to our own mission.”
The temporary suspension of some aspects of community policing has also been the biggest departure from normalcy in other police force. Woodstock’s police department has also temporarily suspended some aspects of community policing. “We believe in that strongly,” police chief Clayton Keefe explained. “We’re out on the streets, shaking hands with people, interacting. And now we’ve had to take a step back.”
Saugerties police chief Joe Sinagra highlighted another reason that social distancing isn’t easy for the local police to practice. “When you’re in our line of work or other emergency responders like firefighters, EMTs, it’s extremely difficult to practice being socially distant because we have to directly interact with people,” he said.
Interaction with others is crucial to community policing. New Paltz’s Emergency Preparedness Task Force, which includes representatives from the town and village governments, the rescue squad, the fire department, SUNY New Paltz, the Woodland Pond retirement center, the New Paltz school district and religious leaders, has been active. “They have been working tirelessly to update that website and educate residents and keep everyone on the same page,” said Lucchesi. “It’s been incredible.”
Police make modifications
The pandemic has affected police behavior in many other ways. The wearing of protective gear on police calls is only one aspect of the response.
New Paltz has closed off its police station to visitors, suspended its internships and ride-along program and “mimic what most law enforcement is doing as a whole, which is to triage officers, handle whatever we can by phone, and prioritize the most serious of crimes,” said Lucchesi. “Disorderly conduct is not what we’re focusing on right now. We have to protect our officers as well.”
Police presence has become more reactive, he said. “We’re not going to let crime run amok, but we are going to be more discerning in our interactions with the public than we normally would be.”
City of Kingston police chief Egidio Tinti described the changes in his department’s operations. Access by the public to the police headquarters in Garraghan Drive has been limited. Officers are told to practice social distancing both with staff and with the public.
“We have been trying to screen the non-emergency calls,” said Tinti, “so officers do not have to make a physical presence when only documentation is necessary and can be done through our dispatchers.”
Other measures have been put in place in Kingston as well. “Disinfection supplies are available in every patrol car, and additional cleanings of our headquarters have been scheduled,” Tinti said. “We are doing our part to help reduce the spread of Covid 19 while continuing to serve the public.”
When it comes to dealing with the virus, cleanliness is next to godliness. The Saugerties police have moved to a single booking room where they do all their interviews, intakes, witness statements and soon arraignments. Each time that room is used, it is sanitized with a large steam cleaner that kills all germs for 24 hours. “Our office has never been cleaner,” said Sinagra. “Our cleaning staff is incredible.”
Saugerties too has made modifications in its policing. These include having each officer in possession of “a Covid kit,” which includes a N95 face mask, goggles, gloves and a tie-back protective suits. “We’re being extra-cautious with medical emergencies and screening our incoming calls to find out if there could be anyone sick in the house,” said chief Sinagra.
Two officers had to self-quarantine due to potential exposure. Neither tested positive for the coronavirus. Ulster County police and rescue workers so far have not reported the high rates of absence experienced recently among law-enforcement first responders in the New York metro area.
People are staying home
Have the police had to enforce the social-distancing guidelines of the CDC and the New York State Department of Health? New Paltz has been one of the local jurisdictions with the largest number of positive tests for the coronavirus. Lucchesi said that his department hadn’t received calls or complaints of large gatherings or parties that they’ve had to police.
It’s sometimes a tough call. “We don’t want to be in the business of criminalizing behavior that just two weeks ago was completely legitimate,” said Lucchesi. “We have to thread the needle carefully with this. There will be a complaint about five people walking together on the rail-trail, but that could be their family, their unit, the people they live with. We will respond to something egregious like a large gathering at Hasbrouck Park, but it’s a balancing act.”
With SUNY New Paltz students having been sent home, the restaurants and bars closed, and the nightlife shut down, New Paltz police call volume is down from what it normally is at this time of year. “A lot of people are staying home,” Lucchesi said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, chief Sinagra said, Saugerties did have to discourage kids from playing basketball or hanging out in town together. “Now, I believe most people understand the severity of the situation, and things are quiet,” he said. Call volume has decreased.
“We closed our skate park and Cantine Park, and we keep educating people on how important it is to stay at home if they can and remain socially distant, and they’ve responded,” Sinagra said. ”I think people are spending more time with their families, which is something we really got away from as a society.”
And Woodstock remains Woodstock. Since the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close, chief Keefe reported very few alcohol-related calls from the bar scene. “I don’t like seeing our businesses and restaurants closed, but I’m okay with not having people on the road drinking and driving,” he said.
Known for its vibrant street scene during the warm weather, Woodstock has toned down during the Covid 19 crisis. Even many of the New York City weekenders have stopped coming up to their country homes, or “if they are up here, they’re self-quarantined because we aren’t seeing them,” said Keefe.
Though “businesses are shut down and most of the restaurants,” he is seeing people hike Overlook Mountain. “That’s typically something you see people do on the weekends, and certainly not as many as we’re seeing now. That trailhead parking lot is full most days, which is great, because if you can climb that mountain, then you’re pretty healthy!”
The role of the rescue squad
With the drastic nationwide increase in job losses, children not in school, and the vast majority of people being asked to shelter in place, some additional social strain is inevitable. Policing authorities are on the alert.
“We’ve had to respond to domestic calls since that stay order,” Lucchesi in New Paltz said. He felt that it was too early to say whether the statistics showed any measurable increase in domestic violence at this point. “It’s definitely a concern, and we’re paying close attention.”
Woodstock police chief Keefe said there had been a noticeable “increase in domestic calls, which we are handling and prepared for.”
In New Paltz, the task of responding to possible COVID-19 distress calls falls primarily on the rescue squad. “We’ve had to reduce the number of people we take on calls to limit exposure to COVID-19 and try and make sure we have enough staff to last us through this,” said rescue squad chief Mark Goodnow. “Typically, we’d have four people respond to a distress call, and now we have two: the driver and a paramedic.”
The rescue squad’s headquarters is now closed to visitors, and the number of staff in the building to only four people. “Usually there’s six to ten of us in the building, or as many as 14, and we have family dinners and educational programs and ride-alongs. But all of that is shut down now, so it’s very quiet.”
The squad’s protocol is always to respond to a call wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and to ask whomever they’re being called to treat or assess to put on a mask. “We’ve had COVID-19 patients in respiratory distress and have treated and transported them,” Goodnow said. Unless their symptoms require urgent care and response, those who believe they could have the virus are told to get county health department approval for testing.
“Our call volume is down, because there are less car accidents due to people staying at home,” reported Goodnow, “There are less recreational accidents, because people aren’t doing those things, either. But we do have our stroke and heart-attack calls.”
The rescue squad is prepared for “psychiatric emergencies,” as well as more typical calls and COVID-19 distress calls. The present societal shutdown pressures could impact the incidence of domestic violence.
Goodnow admits to being scared about the severity of the contagion and how quickly it spreads, But this is the line of work the rescue squad is in. “Our worst day is when we lose someone because we weren’t able to help them.”
We’re all in it together
The Ulster County sheriff’s department has had to implement measures to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 while protecting its personnel and ensuring public safety. The county jail In Kingston, which last week housed 119 inmates, has “temporarily suspended in-person visits, added a correction officer to each shift, and closed all access points to the jail and law-enforcement building, except for one central entrance at the main rotunda where we have someone positioned with a non-contact thermometer to test people before they come in,” said Ulster County detective lieutenant Abram Markiewicz.
“As of today, we have no known cases of Covid 19 in our inmates or our staff,” he said. “But it’s not like all other illnesses took a vacation. We still have your run-of-the-mill colds and allergies and flus.”
If certain symptoms present and persist and they meet the vulnerable-population criteria, inmates and staff will be tested.
“Sheriff [Juan] Figueroa came in and spoke with all of the inmates and explained to them why we were suspending their regular visits, and they understand. They don’t want to get their families and loved ones sick. But the sheriff has put extra money onto their phone cards so that they can make more phone calls to their loved ones.”
Other extenuating circumstances include an inmate needing a visit from an attorney, clergy or family member. “There are always exceptions to a rule, and if a visit needs to take place, then they can meet in a non-contact room,” the lieutenant said.
According to Markiewicz, keeping the virus out of the jail is “certainly a big priority for us. We cannot let something get in there, because if it does, it can go downhill very quickly.” The jail has four isolation rooms designed for tuberculosis patients that can be used for inmates with the virus. “It has a system that takes the air, out rather than pumps the air in, and then that air goes through various filters,” he explained. “If we get more than four cases, obviously, we’d have to work something out with area hospitals.”
Courts are currently not being in session. As for enforcement, Markiewicz said, “By nature, our job does not change much. We’re here to protect public safety, and unlike many other institutions we don’t have the option of shutting down. We’ve been here since 1688 through all kinds of things, and we’re ready to go to work.”
So far, the sheriff’s department has not seen a spike in other kinds of calls. “With the various factors we’re dealing with, it makes sense that those calls could go up; but right now they’re not, and we’re hoping that they don’t. But we’re certainly prepared if they do.”
Markiewicz hoped that “people have that we’re-in-it-together feeling and are just home, watching their favorite Netflix series.”
Chief Keefe had expressed similar sentiments. “We’re a tight community,” he had said about Woodstock, “and I think we all want to get through this and out the other side as soon as possible.”