‘It’s Like Friday The 13th’; Area Police Officers Juggle Public Health And Public Safety Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

PITTSBURGH, PA — Donning masks and spraying disinfectant, our men and women in blue look a little different these days.

While we shelter in place, police officers must strike a balance between public health and public safety.

KDKA’s Meghan Schiller sat down with 3 area police chiefs to talk about how the pandemic is changing day-to-day police work.

“We sanitize the cars in between each shift,” said Chief Sean Frank, Shaler Police Department.

It’s the new normal in Shaler. Officer Leah Nock puts on her mask and starts cleaning.

“It’s a simple peroxide mix and you just can spray it and let it sit on the surface for 4 or 5 minutes.”

It’s one of the new rules implemented by Chief Sean Frank.

“I was chief for 2 days when this hit.”

Trial by fire, he tells KDKA’s Meghan Schiller over Zoom.

“One of the first things we did was we altered our schedules to try to distance the officers as much as we could.”

The officer shifts lengthened from 8 hours to 12 hours, meaning 1 less shift change per day at the station.

“Most of the call volume in the area is down, but the intensity and nature of the calls- there’s a lot of mental health calls and suicides,” said Chief Frank.

They’re seeing the same uptick 40 miles south in Monessen.

“It’s like Friday the 13th, with a full moon, around the holidays. There’s just every shift, every day, multiple calls,” said Chief Jim Smith, Monessen Police Chief.

He said the attempted suicide calls take a toll on his officers.

“The PTSD for first responders is real,” said Chief Smith. “You can only deal with so many depressing calls and suicides.”

His officers know that every call increases their risk of getting infected.

“We are not told. We could be on a car accident or a domestic. Unless someone tells us, ‘hey I tested positive for C19’ -we’re not told.”

He said his department is adjusting to the “new normal.”

“There’s a new way of living in our country now because of this and fortunately for us in law enforcement we’re really good at adapting,” said Chief Smith. “We’re really good at improvising and we’ll make it work.”

No officers in Monessen or Shaler tested positive, but 4 Pittsburgh Police officers did contract the virus.

“We did have 7 people off- we had 4 officers, 2 recruits and a civilian,” said Chief Scott Schubert, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Six of the seven are back on the job.

“Normally we know what we’re going up against. This is something you can’t see.”

That’s why Chief Schubert created the “Pandemic Command Group” to handle the ever-changing pandemic and plan for worst case scenarios.

“We put together a plan, phase 1-4 and its very flexible so depending on what happens we can fluctuate,” said Chief Schubert. “Whether that was making a makeshift hospital somewhere or you lose 25 percent of your department to the virus.”

Chief Schubert doesn’t want to focus on the negative, but rather views the pandemic as an opportunity for future innovative police work.

“I think we got to learn from what happened because it can happen again and what can we do better?” said Chief Schubert.

He said that could mean “switching the officers schedules, looking at our workspaces and moving things around” and also deciding if they could teach future recruits virtually.