Policing in a pandemic
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When the patron of Wing 336 spoke to the latest recruits to graduate from Police College last week, he told them they would very soon be called on to do extraordinary things in their communities.
As the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in, the message could not have come from a more reliable source than their patron, the director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
The new officers have now joined their colleagues, of all ages and ranks, and other first responders, to do their duty on the frontline as the rest the country seeks to protect itself from an invisible and virulent enemy that is engulfing the world.
As New Zealand enters its first full week of the Government-ordered lockdown, there has been a slight drop in the usual demand for police service in some districts as people adapt to a new normal.
In Canterbury, Senior Sergeant Stefan Preddy, operations manager for the Covid-19 response there, says there was a similar quiet patch after the Canterbury earthquakes before demand ramped up again.
“In a few weeks, people will start to get restless and we are already seeing a new demand from people wanting to report breaches of the Alert Level 4 rules.”
Despite the unprecedented nature of the operation, Stefan says Canterbury staff are taking this emergency in their stride. “They are resilient and realistic,” he says. “We’ve had many life-changing events in Christchurch and our staff are used to things changing in the blink of an eye.
“Many went straight from planning for the mosque memorial events into Covid-19 planning, resulting in 11 days of straight work for most.
“We were fortunate we have good business contingency plans in place along with a detailed Pandemic Plan that we could easily modify to fit our current needs, putting us ahead of the game.”
Police have been doing self-isolation compliance visits in some parts of the country, at the request of the Ministry of Health, but so far there appears to have been a high level of obedience when it comes to the quarantine process.
“At this stage we’re not out and about enforcing the lockdown,” Stefan says, “although we have the powers to do that if necessary, but we are out there providing reassurance to the public.”
Police has also recognised that it needs to provide assurance to its staff too.
Although districts already have some PPE (personal protection equipment) stock for normal business, more was required for this event. When the additional supplies arrived, it felt a bit like Christmas (for details of what’s in the PPE kits, see p9), Stefan says, with everyone extremely happy to now have access to the protective gear.
With Canterbury being the biggest Police district geographically, including 39 stations, the logistics of getting the kits out to all stations had been taking up a lot of Stefan’s time. By last Friday (March 27), the job was 95 per cent complete.
His team had also been busy installing wash points at every police station in the district, ensuring there is soap and water and disinfectant boot baths available to be used before entering buildings.
Officers are also being told to at least try to maintain a safe distance from others and to carry out standard risk assessments for home visits.
One of the biggest concerns is when officers have had to take immediate action to detain or arrest an offender, with no time get their PPE gear. Scuffles and use of force involve close contact and in at least two cases last week, officers were deliberately spat on.
Officers have needed to have a shower and clean their uniforms.
Such occurrences have a flow-on effect on families at home, with everyone on edge about possible transmission of the illness.
As of Monday, two sworn members were confirmed as having the virus and are in isolation at home. Police have a plan in place for accommodation at hotels for any staff who may need to go into isolation from their families.
Non-sworn staff are considered a crucial part of Police’s contingency plans and many have already been redeployed to other areas to assist with the response.
All constabulary staff have switched to a 2x2x2 roster and most officers are on duty out on the street.
Police Association President Chris Cahill says this is still a “learn as you go” situation, with some confusion around the lockdown and exactly what it means. “Police are part of getting the message across about what you can and can’t do.”
Police are also braced for a predicted rise in family harm cases, the inevitable and unfortunate result of people living at close quarters through the stress of a lockdown.
Another outcome Police is having to consider is a serious reduction in police numbers if a lot of its staff contract the virus. Police has contingency plans in place, but says the details are considered operational and can’t currently be reported on.
Comms staff have been divided into different shift groups, working 24-hour split rosters at Harlech House and the Kapiti communications centre, to provide cover if too many people in one group become unwell.
Chris says New Zealanders, and Police, have done a good job in implementing the lockdown measures, especially compared with some other countries.
Reports from ICPRA (the International Council of Police Representative Associations) show that elsewhere in the world there has been a disjointed and chaotic response, especially in areas with no centralised police service.
“In New Zealand, we are able to provide a consistent response across the country.
In other countries, there are mixed messages to both police and the public, which doesn’t give the population confidence in police.”
In Spain, for example, where cases are skyrocketing, panic is setting in and there has been increased public disorder. In Scotland, 10 per cent of the police are in isolation. In the United States, the New York Police Department has reported that 12 per cent of its staff are infected and three have died.
With the landscape of this crisis changing almost by the day, police here are having to be flexible in their responses, including how they deal with breaches of the lockdown rules.
At this stage, officers are taking an educational approach with transgressors, including those who have claimed to be unaware of the lockdown, but that could change in the coming weeks as the number of infections rise.
Police powers in the case of infectious diseases are outlined in the Health Act, giving officers the right to enforce any requirements made by the Ministry of Health, including entering private property and detaining those who are not abiding by those requirements under the act.
Meanwhile, for the new recruits starting work this week, the reality of Dr Bloomfield’s words will be sinking in as they enter their chosen career at a time of a national and international crisis unprecedented in their lifetimes.
PPE for Police staff
Police has told staff that it is able to provide enough PPE (personal protective equipment) for all those who need it. PPE packs have been sent to all districts for frontline staff and more kits will be made available for Level 2 staff.
The kits contain:
- 1 pair reusable splash goggles – can be washed out with soap/non-abrasive detergent and hot water
- 20 x N95 3M disposable respirator masks – a high-specification, close-fitting face mask that can be used for up to eight hours if kept dry and clean
- 100 x nitrile disposable gloves – Note: The use of gloves does not replace the need for handwashing
- 50 surgical face masks – to prevent inhalation of droplets produced by others
- 100 alcohol wipes – for cleaning hands and wiping surfaces
- Bottle of hand sanitiser
Disposable overalls will be provided for Police vehicles.
Helpline for staff and families
An information phoneline has been set up for Police staff and their families – between 7am and 10pm each day (visit the Police intranet Covid-19 page or the NZPA Covid-19 Info page for details) – for enquiries on:
- Health and safety
- Self-isolation and social distancing
- Leave – including special leave
- Payroll – allowances, deductions or
- Workforce management
- Employment-related matters
The Lockdown Lowdown
The Police Wellness Hub, accessed through nzpolice.synergyhealthltd.com for those who are members, has a new section devoted to strategies for coping with life under the Covid-19 lockdown.
The “Lockdown Lowdown” includes:
- a guide to coronavirus prevention and protection
- tips for parents coping with children at home
- lockdown workouts
- coping with stress, including financial matters, during the lockdown
- remote working