An outbreak at Los Angeles Police Department training center has seen 17 police and detention officer trainees infected with the coronavirus, and officials say they are now implementing weekly testing for academy classes and instructors.
The Los Angeles County Public Health Department documented the outbreak at the Ahmanson Recruit Training Center in Westchester. The training center is one of several non-nursing home and medical facilities identified by county public health officials as having multiple people infected with the coronavirus.
Nine police officer recruits in one academy training class and eight jailer trainees have tested positive, leading to the brief suspension of those classes to allow recruits to recover, said LAPD Cmdr. Ruby Flores.
“With the support of the mayor, we are implementing testing for new people coming in and weekly testing for all those in the academy,” Flores said.
With a thermal body scanner that reads one’s temperature upon entry to the Westchester training center, along with strict hygiene and social distancing protocols, the academy had operated virus-free until April 18, she said.
“We knew it would happen at the academy sooner or later,” Flores said of an outbreak.
Flores said a trainee officer whose class was in its fifth week of the six-month academy tested positive.
“It was brought in from the outside,” she said, explaining a family member of the recruit’s household became sick with COVID-19. Subsequently, eight others in the class of 38 tested positive. Flores said testing of the class revealed the spread because many of those infected were asymptomatic.
“We temporarily suspended the training class to let them recover,” she said.
Some of the recruits who need time to recover have now joined later academy classes.
A similar course of events repeated itself with a class of 26 recruit detention officers, and that class was briefly suspended to allow infected trainees to recover last week, she said.
“It will resume in a week when everyone has their test results,” she said.
Flores said after discussions with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office this week the department now has 300 coronavirus test kits available weekly for training operations.
Life in the police academy during the pandemic is a little different. At every opportunity, trainees are spaced apart during their six months there. Frequent handwashing and sanitizing is written into every recruit’s schedule, Flores said.
“Gloves, masks, cleaning and showering are repeatedly emphasized and drilled into the minds of the future officers,” she said.
Also, “handcuffing training now takes place outside,” she said, to reduce the chance of infection.
Training modules on hand-to-hand control techniques that involve physical grappling have been pushed back in the six-month schedule to reduce the close contact.
But Flores said that, ultimately, policing is a close-contact profession and as first responders that is unavoidable. The department, she said, is not about to curtail required training.
Trainees are also told they must take precautions beyond the classroom.
“From the moment they begin, we tell them you need to isolate. Your life is the LAPD and home,” Flores said. “We even discourage in-person study groups. Use Zoom, I tell them. Don’t be that guy at the beach or shopping.”
Flores said everyone at the training center carries hand sanitizer, and it is also present around the facility these days. The department stepped up cleaning at the facilities and a moon-suited team of cleaners was sent to the Westchester facility after the two class outbreaks.
Some in the department wondered how the recruits would react to the outbreak, especially with the cleaning squads and sick classmates.
“I met with them all post-sickness and they all came to work and showed up ready to be cops. I was really impressed,” she said. “They have a passion to serve.”
Flores said the recruits were initially fearful they might lose their positions, but the department and their colleagues emphasized they are part of the LAPD family.
The LAPD so far has had 108 staff test positive for the virus. Four top commanders were among the first to test positive. Of those sickened, 49 have recovered and come back to work in recent weeks. One officer remains hospitalized.
In Orange County, the Sheriff’s Department’s academy has been on a pause since March. Carrie Braun, a department spokeswoman, said the agency is now laying the groundwork to begin new academy classes in the near future.
Michael Parker, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander who oversaw the agency’s training, said academies are now looking to have fewer people in a class to allow them to spread out, but that will require more instructors. He said academy classes might now avoid sharing instructors to avoid potential spread from group to group.
“That means hands-on at the end of an academy and do it outside because we know it spreads easier indoors, and then masks plus routine testing,” Parker said.
Parker said there is wisdom to keep academy classes going, but also in doing a pause as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department did.
“Some places did not think they had the information to continue or they did not have the staff to split classes for social distancing, so they stopped,” he said. “Agencies are now feeling they have enough information and a better understanding of training in a pandemic.”