Before he was a deputy chief at the Long Beach Police Department, Erik Herzog says he insisted on interviewing suspects and witnesses in person.
“When I was actually doing investigations, I wouldn’t do a phone interview because I couldn’t read the person,” he said. Taking away in-person observations made solving a crime that much more difficult. But in the time of COVID-19, that’s what Herzog—who oversees the LBPD’s investigations division—is asking officers to do in many cases.
“I asked detectives to be smarter about what they expose themselves to,” he said.
That guideline is among a host of adjustments the department has made to try to protect officers from the coronavirus. Despite those precautions and the department distributing protective equipment to officers, employees have fallen ill.
This week, two more Long Beach police officers tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of employees who’ve been infected to at least five. Another two police employees were recently quarantined because they were in close contact with the sick officers, according to LBPD Chief Robert Luna.
Investigators are still trying to figure out where the officers may have contracted the disease and who else they may have passed it to, but both of them work in patrol—one in the East Division of the city and one in the South Division—Luna said in notifications to department employees.
The South Division officer tested positive Tuesday after displaying flu-like symptoms, according to the chief. But the East Division officer, who got the test results Wednesday, didn’t show any signs of the disease.
“They’re doing fine,” Luna said in an interview. “Nobody to my knowledge has been hospitalized.”
Police officials expect the number of coronavirus cases in the LBPD will rise now that officers without symptoms can get tests. On April 30 Long Beach started offering COVID-19 testing to all first-responders and other front-line workers.
But just because officers are allowed to be screened doesn’t mean they’re getting tested.
The department only knows of about 132 employees who have been tested for COVID-19 or screened by an emergency medical team to determine if testing is necessary, Luna said. That’s out of about 800 officers and 400 more civilian employees at the LBPD.
Police officials are encouraging employees to sign up at local sites run by the health department, but, “They’re not mandated to test if they’re asymptomatic,” said LBPD Assistant Chief of Police Wally Hebeish.
Hebeish called the number of officers tested so far “fairly low,” but he said it’s possible more have been screened without the department’s knowledge. Employees aren’t required to disclose that information.
Before Long Beach expanded the testing criteria, some officers expressed concern about their inability to get screened after two employees in the department’s gang investigations division were confirmed to have the coronavirus last month, according to two police employees familiar with the situation. That news came after the first LBPD employee, an officer in the West Division, tested positive in late March.
“We’re afraid for our families,” said one officer who asked not to be named because the person didn’t have authorization to speak with the media. “We’re afraid we’re not properly protected.”
Luna and Hebeish said the department has ramped up its communication with employees about how to best protect themselves after one officer pushed back on unclear instructions about when to wear the protective equipment provided to them.
Police have even loaned two detectives to the Long Beach Health Department to help it trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19.
The LBPD is also having officers show up at staggered times for shifts and regularly cleaning and disinfecting equipment and buildings, they said.
More changes include lab units no longer automatically responding to residential burglaries—instead calling ahead to make sure it’s safe. And narcotics detectives, too, are responding to fewer overdoses, instead relying on officers to collect the evidence they need, according to Herzog.
But officers and police brass say those precautions and many more small changes can’t alter the face-to-face nature of some police work.
“Out on the street, all that goes out the window,” said the officer who asked not to be named.
Last month, for instance, officers had to detain a man who was yelling “I have COVID” while he appeared to be having a mental episode near Marina Pacifica, according to a dispatch log of the incident.
“When you walk away or you’re done, you’re going, oh boy, what did I get?” Hebeish, the assistant chief said about situations like that. “You’re just praying you’re not infected and you’re not going to impact anybody else.”