Covid-19: From the frontline
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Having good clear operating instructions is vital for officers policing the Covid-19 lockdown, and will continue to be crucial for each lockdown level.
This has emerged as a powerful message from the police workforce.
The extreme level 4 lockdown, which shut down most social and business activity in the country, came so fast that no one was really prepared for it.
Instructions from Police to the frontline initially lacked clarity and for the first week to 10 days, there was a high level of anxiety among officers about how to engage with the public, and how to protect themselves and their families from potential infection.
However, communication from Police rapidly improved, with clear guidance on police legal powers and how to protect themselves and decontaminate before entering stations and going home. The arrival of PPE kit for each officer was also enormously reassuring.
The highly restrictive level 4 ended at 11.59pm on Monday, April 27, but policing lower levels brings new challenges.
Speaking a week before level 3 came into force, Police Association president Chris Cahill said that, in some ways, policing level 3 could be trickier than level 4. “A lot more clarity will be required on what’s allowed. More businesses will be open and around 400,000 more people will be going back to work. It’s going to be a lot harder for police to identify where people are breaching the rules. It’s important the Government comes out with really clear guidelines on what is and isn’t allowed.”
These needed to include example scenarios and the actions required by frontline police.
He believed police would concentrate on educating the public, rather than enforcement, and would likely focus on groups of people – “like a group of 10 or 12 mates going to the park to play touch rugby” – letting them know that congregating like that still wasn’t allowed.
The level of policing that level 4 has required was evident in figures announced by Police Commissioner Andy Coster on April 23. He said police had dealt with 4452 breaches since the lockdown began, including 423 in the previous 24 hours. There had been 477 prosecutions, 3844 warnings and 131 youth referrals.
Chris said he was “very proud” of how police were performing. Once police were clear about their role as specified under the Health Act, they concentrated on educating the public and using enforcement with those continuing to breach the rules.
“I acknowledge we have been aided by the vast majority of New Zealanders who have stuck to the rules,” Chris said.
He approved of the Government’s move to level 3. Given the effectiveness of the lockdown in keeping Covid-19 infection figures low, the Government’s mandate to stay at level 4 any longer would start to be tested by the public. “And that would lead to more pressure on police.”
He was also very pleased at how Police had reacted to members’ concerns that the association had raised. Officers had been concerned for their own and their families’ welfare and Police had got personal protective equipment (PPE) out to them as soon as possible.
Police had also identified and arranged alternative accommodation for officers who had been possibly exposed to Covid-19, which had been very welcome.
“The lack of complaints from our members indicates Police is getting things pretty right.” There were some issues with cancellation of leave and its fairness, which were worked through on an individual basis.
Another concern was the need for shift changes and new duties to be notified as quickly as possible so officers could make the necessary family arrangements. This became more important under level 3, because many officers’ partners would be going back to work and therefore unable to care for children.
“I’m pleased and surprised by the lack of significant issues arising out of the lockdown. This shows the willingness of staff to roll up their sleeves in extraordinary circumstances, and that Police is doing a good job at responding to issues as they arise,” Chris said.
The association’s 67 Holiday Homes have been closed for the duration, barring three that have made available to staff evacuating at short notice from overseas postings and who were unable to access private accommodation due to the lockdown.
“We considered making the Holiday Homes available for police to self-isolate, but because of the risk to caretakers and the difficulty in managing the high level of cleaning they would need, we couldn’t justify the risk.”
At its peak, about 800 officers were self-isolating, but this had come down to about 200 in late April, Chris said. Most of these were police who had been travelling overseas, or who were working but had high-risk family members they needed to stay away from.
About 30 officers had been put up in hotels and motels around the country by Police due to possible exposure at work. Chris said not many officers had taken up this option, due to the low rate of infection in the community, but it was reassuring to know it was there.
One particularly unpleasant way that frontline staff can be put at risk is when they are spat on. Chris said there had been multiple incidents around the country and that it was “a very serious offence given the nature of the Covid-19 risk”. He was encouraged by some of the penalties dished out in the courts for this offence, including imprisonment.
With much of the population confined, crime levels and the road toll are down. But family harm was expected to increase, with people confined together in their homes all day. Chris said the good news was that after a spike in the first week of the lockdown, family harm reports had settled to normal levels.
Unfortunately, given the nature of the lockdown, he said, there could be significant under-reporting of family harm, due to victims being unable to get away safely to notify police.
Association Region 2 director Emiel Logan, the response senior sergeant at Otāhuhu Police Station, Counties Manukau, said some of his staff had initial anxieties and frustrations about personal safety, protecting their families and the rules of engagement they needed to follow. “There were a lot of mixed messages to start with.”
There was a great deal of anxiety among those who had sick, elderly people living with them at home. “No-one wants to bring something like this home, and someone gets sick, or worse dies.”
Reassurance came after the first week, however, with the arrival of plentiful PPE, and much clearer explanations of what was expected from frontline staff. The low level of community spread of Covid-19 also helped ease anxieties.
In Otāhuhu, the neighbourhood and community policing teams were doing a lot of reassurance work, such as checking up on supermarkets and dairies to see that everyone was keeping at a proper distance and there was appropriate signage to help keep staff and customers safe.
Family harm reporting was very busy in the first week of the lockdown, but was now fluctuating a lot, dropping in some areas and increasing in others, Emiel said.
His five public safety teams – each consisting of two sergeants and 14 constables – were focused on responding to 111 calls for service, the initial response to family harm and other urgent incidents, as well as investigating allegations of people breaching the lockdown.
Another of their roles at one point was making checks on people who had flown back into the country, to ensure they were isolated at the address they had provided. This involved making at least one physical visit to the address, and sighting the person from a distance.
Generally, the public were on board with what police had to do in the lockdown, he said.
“There is a very small minority who will never follow the rules, full stop, and who will always respond aggressively to police. Even with them, my guys have walked the extra mile to engage with them in a meaningful way, only using our enforcement powers as a last resort,” Emiel said.
Region 4 director Paul Ormerod is a road policing sergeant in Hastings. He said Hawke’s Bay police had formed five reassurance groups, doing three early and three late shifts. Each group consisted of a sergeant and eight constables. Their roles included checks on premises to ensure they were allowed to be open, and if they were, that lockdown rules were being followed.
They were also checking out complaints of people congregating, and manning road checkpoints to ensure people’s travel was essential. The reassurance groups were also assisting public safety teams with 111 calls if they were too busy.
Paul said Police had equipped all frontline staff with the right PPE and all stations – Hastings, Napier, Gisborne, Taradale, and Flaxmere – were well-equipped with Covid-19 safety equipment.
If officers were entering a house, they would wear at least a mask, and also gloves and goggles if warranted. If attending a sudden death, disposable overalls were also available. If visiting a house that had a known Covid-19 case, they would wear full PPE.
To protect the station bubble, officers were washing their boots and using hand sanitiser before coming back into the station from a job.
Another way of protecting the “police bubble” was the use of the jailer’s van to take arrested people back to the station. This minimised contact and potential cross-contamination between police and prisoners in vehicles, Paul said.
To protect their families at home, many officers were showering and changing at work and taking their uniform home in a bag, to be washed separately in hot water. At home, some were sleeping in separate rooms to distance themselves a little from loved ones.
In terms of crime levels under level 4, he believed there had been an increase in family harm reports, as well as trespassing and loitering at supermarkets and pharmacies. “There’s still a level of shoplifting in supermarkets.” Car crashes had reduced drastically due to the reduction in travel.
Traffic checkpoints had been in place at the SH2/SH5 turn-off for people leaving Hawke’s Bay for Taupō or Gisborne, and at SH2 in Waipukurau for traffic coming into the region, particularly over the Easter break.
Not many people had been turned back, Paul said. Those who had included people heading to Taupō to pick up unnecessary items, motorcyclists “who just wanted to have a blast” and Trade Me customers who were told that picking up what they’d bought was not essential travel.
Acceptable travel at Easter had included people heading to Auckland to pick up family who had arrived home from overseas at the start of the lockdown and had been isolated in hotels there for two weeks. Farmers were also permitted to travel to feed stock, given the drought in Hawke’s Bay.
“People have generally been cooperative,” Paul said. “But there’s still an unfortunate element in society who do whatever they want – they’re out at night, doing burglaries and selling drugs and ignoring the law as they usually do.”
He paid tribute to essential workers in the community, such as those working at supermarkets and pharmacies or picking apples, who were sticking to their bubbles and letting police get on with their work.
There is a very small minority who will never follow the rules, full stop, and who will always respond aggressively to police. Even with them, my guys have walked the extra mile to engage with them in a meaningful way.
– Region 2 director Senior Sergeant Emiel Logan
NZPA still serving
Full Police Association services (with some delays) are now being provided to members by staff who are all working from home. President Chris Cahill said he was very pleased how quickly staff had made the move to remote working, which was a tribute to the investment the association had made in moving its systems to the cloud over the past 18 months, and to staff who had been very adaptable.