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Policing in the time of coronavirus: Tampa Bay cops share their stories

Coronavirus has carved out a new set of challenges and duties for police officers and sheriff’s deputies on patrol.

The man hadn’t heard from his stepmother, who checked in with him every morning. So he called the police, hoping they could swing by.

Clearwater patrol Sgt. Meg Hasty arrived at the home that March morning. She and her partner found locked doors, pulled shades, a full mailbox and a Hello Fresh meal kit out front, full of perishable food.

Clearwater Police Sgt. Meg Hasty wears a face mask and gloves as she checks on a man at a bus stop on N Betty Lane in April. Law enforcement officers are facing a new array of challenges policing during a global pandemic. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The officers stood in the driveway, trying to figure out whether to force their way inside. They knew from the stepson that the woman wasn’t feeling well. They also knew that a frightening virus was rapidly spreading all over the world, with hundreds of new cases every day in Florida.

Hasty was already wearing gloves for this call. If she had to go inside, she’d suit all the way up: goggles, a plastic gown and an N95 mask.

This is the new body armor for a lurking, invisible enemy.

• • •

Officers face all kinds of risks on the job, from armed criminals to belligerent drunks. Even disease is something they’re used to factoring in as a workplace hazard, thanks to coughing or blood or spit.

But the coronavirus has carved a new set of challenges for law enforcement, particularly those on patrol or responding to calls.

Agencies across the Tampa Bay area have largely stopped responding to anything but emergencies, instead taking reports over the phone or online. When they do respond, officers take a minute inside their cruisers to make sure they’ll be protected.

“It’s like, ‘Wait a second, what do we need? Do we need some masks? Some gloves? How far am I away?’” said Tampa Officer David Simpson.

Officers who work for the Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg police departments and inside the Pinellas County jail have tested positive. That has prompted quarantines for the officers and some of their fellow squad members. Dozens of Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies have also been quarantined.

Officers from specialty units are filling in on patrol or taking on new tasks spurred by the virus. Until recently, Sgt. Mitchell Grissinger oversaw the school guardian unit for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. With schools closed, he moved to a newly formed team devoted to enforcing state and local stay-at-home orders.

Grissinger, a deputy of 21 years, hadn’t imagined a situation where he would be policing businesses.

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Many departments are seeing shortages of protective equipment. Officers are sometimes reusing N95 masks or pairing them with handmade cloth masks to extend their lifespans. They are getting hand sanitizer made by distilleries and breweries and using cloth masks sewn by spouses or parents.

“It’s an empty feeling when you put people out there knowing that they may not have the proper equipment to do their job and keep them safe," said Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan. "We have bulletproof vests, we have guns, and we train for all that.

“This is a new frontier with a totally different rule of engagement.”

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan speaks during a Facebook Live address on March 25, 2020 about how his department plans to enforce an expected stay-at-home order in the city to limit the spread of the coronavirus. [ Facebook ]

• • •

About a month after Florida saw its first case of the coronavirus, a St. Petersburg officer went to check on a woman. Family members said she was feeling anxious about the virus.

The officer knocked on her door. She opened it, holding a gun, then pulled the trigger. The officer took cover and wasn’t hurt.

The March 31 shooting was an extreme case but illustrative of the stress and confusion that officers have encountered every day as lockdown orders have stretched on for weeks. The tension is marked by spikes in domestic disturbance calls and reports of road rage and reckless driving.

“Everyone’s … patience is starting to get tapped out because no one’s in the best spot right now,” said Largo patrol Sgt. Amanda Misner.

Even with the right equipment and precautions, police can only do so much to protect themselves, particularly in life-or-death situations. Some Tampa officers and Hillsborough deputies were quarantined after giving cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the county deputies on a man who had overdosed on heroin. At the hospital, the man was diagnosed with pneumonia and tested positive for COVID-19.

Or take the April 1 incident at the Interstate 4/Interstate 75 interchange. Tampa police officers, Hillsborough deputies and Florida Highway Patrol troopers spent nearly seven hours in an armed standoff with a triple-murder and kidnapping suspect from Georgia.

Dugan said the coronavirus “never came into play” as police dealt with the gunman. Officers can't exactly practice social distancing in a situation like that.

The stress doesn’t end with their shifts, though. Several officers said they’re anxious about returning home after work, said Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association and a St. Petersburg police officer.

“They're concerned about their families,” Vazquez said, “and what they're bringing home.”

• • •

Hasty, the Clearwater sergeant, has started a new routine after her shift.

She sprays her boots and duty belt with Lysol.

She takes off her uniform and tosses it in the washing machine. And she takes a shower.

Then, and only then, will she greet her husband and three children.

It’s an extra precaution on top of the steps she already takes during her shift as she patrols the downtown district.

Sometimes, she rolls up to calls with her gloves already on. If she has to enter a building, she puts on a surgical mask. If people inside the building have flu-like symptoms, then it’s the N95 mask. During every arrest, her hands and face are covered.

Clearwater Police Sgt. Meg Hasty wears a face mask and gloves as she checks on a man at a bus stop on N Betty Lane in April. Law enforcement officers are facing a new array of challenges policing during a global pandemic. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Taking reports over the phone is strange for an agency that has prioritized sending an officer to every call, she said.

It’s clear her community is on edge. Residents who once worked from an office are working from home, watching their neighbors and calling police over activity they think is new and suspicious.

Lots of worried family members are asking police to check on parents or siblings who they can no longer swing by and visit.

“There are people who are really afraid,” said Hasty, an officer since 2005. “Then there are people who say we’re kind of going overboard.”

When those values clash, police are called to intervene. Hasty’s seen a lot of reports about barbecues or parties that contradict public health orders.

She understands that people miss social interaction and need to unwind. But it puts her and her colleagues at risk, she said.

“The thing I would ask is that people take this seriously, so that we who do not stay home — the medical employees, the firefighters, the police department, the grocery employees, the pharmacists — can stay safe and do our job.”

“There’s nowhere to hide for us.”

Related: ‘Take it seriously.’ Tampa police officer recounts coronavirus ordeal

• • •

Back on that March call, in the driveway, Hasty heard a cough through an unlatched window.

The sergeant walked around to the window and knocked. She introduced herself as a police officer, asked if the woman was in there. Yes, she answered.

They spoke through the glass, a barrier Hasty is now grateful for. The woman recently returned from a cruise and had decided to self-quarantine. She said she’d call her stepson.

Hasty took off her gloves, squirted hand sanitizer on her palms and moved on.

A few days later, she was at home playing cards with her mother when she got a call from a lieutenant.

The woman on the other side of the window had tested positive for COVID-19.

Clearwater Police officer John Cappa, left, and Sgt. Meg Hasty, center, both wear face masks and gloves as they speak to a man at a bus stop on N Betty Lane in April. Law enforcement officers are facing a new array of challenges policing during a global pandemic. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

• • •

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