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Policing During The Coronavirus Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Americans are becoming aware of the risks that frontline workers are facing during this pandemic. At least, it seems that way, judging from the homemade signs and notes that we've seen posted on sidewalks and windows, thanking doctors and nurses and drivers and grocery store clerks among others. But many of these workers worry that they don't have what they need to protect themselves while doing essential work. Increasingly, police officers are saying the same thing. According to the National Fraternal Order of Police, more than 100 officers have died in the line of duty because of COVID-19. We've called Patrick Yoes to tell us more about this. He is the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which lobbies on behalf of law enforcement officers. He's also an officer in St. Charles Parish, La. Officer Yoes, Mr. President, thanks so much for talking to us.

PATRICK YOES: Well, thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Can I just ask - first of all, a lot of people are looking for guidance, a lot of people in different professional groups are looking for guidance about what steps they should be taking to protect themselves. Have law enforcement officers received any specific guidance from, say, some group like the Centers for Disease Control?

YOES: So if I could just give a little bit of a path I think that brought us to this and where our major concern was is, initially, when this started - when it really ramped up, there weren't a whole lot of PPEs to distribute out. And, you know, the federal government's pushing them down to states. And the states were putting them where they thought that - you know, it's how our system worked. It puts them where they think they're the most needed. And as a result, medical staff for the most part got the majority of those PPEs.

So it left law enforcement in a very precarious situation in that they still had the responsibility of interacting with the public. They did not have the luxury of the stay-home orders or social distancing by the simple nature of our job. And we were doing it without proper PPEs. Now, we improvised, but just, you know, consider the environment we're in. Well, we knew that we were going to be a higher exposure than the average person just simply by the nature of our business.

MARTIN: Of course, we are sorry for every loss of life. Do you have any sense of how many have been infected? What's the totality of the situation with law enforcement? Do you know?

YOES: I don't have any data that shows. I know, speaking with agencies across the country, there are - they put them in three categories - those who test positive, those who have returned back because they've, you know, cleared that period of time. And then we have a larger percentage that are just simply quarantine because of their contact they've had with either individuals in the public or even officers that have been exposed. So, you know, when you think that most agencies across this country are less than 50 officers, you can see where it doesn't take much in lines of a percentage to be quarantined to really, really put an agency in a very difficult situation on manpower.

MARTIN: So now that officers are better equipped - I mean, we - seeing that some of these PPE shortages are abating, what's the next fight? For example, testing. I mean, are officers generally able to get tested? Is there some testing protocol in place for law enforcement around the country that you're aware of?

YOES: Well, testing is - there's no set standard across the country. Now, there's best practices. And the Department of Homeland Security has done a very good job of giving us some guidelines for law enforcement agencies to adopt. It's hard to get one that's going to fit all when you consider all the dynamics of all the different agencies. But testing has certainly improved. I think the next big challenge we're facing as public bodies is that our funding - you know? Government's funded by a number of sources. Sales tax and property taxes are two huge factors of that. And when we shut the country down for a few months, well, it has a - definitely has an impact on the - each jurisdiction's ability to be able to pay their bills.

So what we're seeing now is the threat - and, in some cases, have already started - furloughing of officers at a time when we really need these - you know? It needs these first responders on, you know, onsite and dealing with and protecting their communities. And so, in essence, what we're doing is because of the simple nature of the lack of funding on normal tax - you know, normal process, what we're doing is we're firing the infantry in the middle of a war.

MARTIN: Are you saying that you're seeing police officers being laid off across the country?

YOES: There is - across this country, there are agencies that are having to grapple with the problem of lack of funding because of the government shutting down, which is going to cause furloughs. Yes, that discussions that are happening in large cities and small cities all across America right now.

MARTIN: I want to go back to something that you spoke of earlier. We've talked about the fact that, you know, officers by the nature of their jobs still have to engage with the public no matter what. There are very few positions in police departments that can be done at home. Are those individuals who have contracted COVID-19 in the course of their jobs - is there an acknowledgment of that? Is there, for example - I don't know that the analogy is a strict one, but after Sept. 11, for example, law enforcement personnel who were killed as a result of their duties in Sept. 11 did receive compensation. Does the same apply here?

YOES: Well, I think - I'll tell you that's an excellent question. And thank you for bringing it up because this is a topic that I think we really need to talk about. There's a benefit that is offered. It's a public safety benefit for an officer who dies on the line of duty, police and fire that die in the line of duty that's paid by the federal government. Originally, the language for that is pretty rigid on what has to happen.

Now we reached out to the attorney general - Attorney General Barr. And working with his staff relatively quickly, he identified that law enforcement officers are showing up to work each day, leaving the safety of their homes. And in this environment, there should be a presumption that if they do come down with COVID-19 and they are working in a public safety function, then that should be a presumption that they contracted it while they're working. And he issued that ruling as a rule. It has been - there's bills in Congress that is addressing it. So on that side, I think we've made some headway, and I think a lot of that is learned from Sept. 11. Sept. 11 - it took a long time to sort through all this. And I think that there were a lot of people that don't want to repeat what happened in Sept. 11. They know it's the right thing to do. And if it's the right thing to do, it would be the right thing to do today, too.

MARTIN: There are some 350,000 law enforcement officers around the country?

YOES: Probably about 800,000.

MARTIN: Eight hundred thousand if you gather everybody up together, you know, sheriff's departments and so forth with different, you know, sort of titles. So, you know, that's a lot of people to keep track of. And the reason I mention that is that, you know, it's hard to assess, you know, morale at a time like this. But I am interested. What are you hearing?

YOES: Well, I think, you know, I just recently had a meeting with the major unions across the country, major cities. And, you know, we talked about this very issue. And I think for the most part, this is a tough time for everyone. And I think we need to take a collective sigh and recognize that all of us are in this together, you know? One thing I know from dealing, you know, with disasters across the country and responding, I do know this, you know? Everyone's feeling really bad for themselves right now. I think the best path forward is for everyone to develop a plan on how they're going to merge out of this and start thinking positively rather than focusing on all the negatives, you know? We all have an opportunity here together, working together to move forward. And, you know, none of us asked for this. How we deal with it is what's going to define us. And, you know, we're American strong. And we're in this to win, and we're in it together.

MARTIN: That was Patrick Yoes. He is the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Officer Yoes, Mr. President, thank you for speaking with us.

YOES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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