What? When? How?

By Jim Glennon  |   Mar 18, 2020

The Difficult and Critical Decisions we Face During this Crisis 

On Feb. 27, firefighters in Rocklin, CA, a suburb of Sacramento, responded to a call to help a person who had fallen. During their contact, the patient coughed on the firefighters. Days later, that patient tested positive for coronavirus and three of the responders subsequently had to be quarantined for 14 days.

At that time the police, other first responders, and everyone else were well aware of the coronavirus. Yet the firefighters weren’t wearing special protective equipment. Why? Was the chief shortsighted?  Was he indifferent to the risks of the virus?  Did he not care about his own personnel?

Well, as I see it the answer to those three questions is a resounding NO, and I don’t even know the chief.

Of course, he wasn’t indifferent, shortsighted or uncaring.  He probably cares a lot.  But this fire chief, as well as police chiefs, sheriffs and other first responder leaders nationwide collectively find themselves in a hell of a tough spot.

What? When? How?

Those are the extremely tough questions leaders face during this unprecedented crisis.  And it is a crisis, the likes of which we’ve never experienced before and one that was, quite frankly, difficult to thoroughly prepare for.

When Chief Hack was asked to share any hindsight thoughts he might have about his decision to allow his crew to go out unprotected and then to quarantine them he responded, “You don’t want to jump the gun too soon because there’s a cost to it, both in equipment and creating panic.” He said they had expected the virus to pop up somewhere else in the state first. “Little did we know we’d be the first agency to have this happen.”

Our country finds itself divided; politically, spiritually, ideologically, you name it. I mean, I’m from Chicago and the oldest of nine and my siblings battle about the Cubs and Sox for crying out loud. I have six kids and you can see and feel the divide among us when it comes to politics and government involvement in our lives.

From a political perspective, now is not the time for division, but some in power seem to see this crisis as an opportunity to maintain or gain power.  They should be ashamed.

But the divide I’m talking about found on both micro and macro levels involves everyone from the average citizen to our first responders and our top leadership: How to handle this crisis in real-time with a genuine concern for everyone’s health.

What to do, when to do it and how is a very real conundrum, especially for those in the first responder world. And as hard as I try, I can’t seem to find the ‘go-to’ expert.

As the coronavirus spreads, police officers find themselves in the crosshairs of the illness as well as those who evaluate their response to the fears of the community.

Officers are used to being second-guessed, but now is not the time to question motivations and disparage the talents and morals of those who purposely put themselves in vulnerable positions.

Chief Hack knew that if he launched overt and aggressive safety measures early if he was proactive and clairvoyant, it still wouldn’t have been the perfect response.  Using up valuable and limited resources too early, prior to the actual outbreak, would have been seen at the moment – and in hindsight – as wasteful and irresponsible.

Police officers move to the danger. They try to prepare and be proactive as best they can. But it isn’t that easy.

What to do, when to do it, and how?

Calibre Press’s instructor team includes several chiefs and I can tell you that they are consumed with concern for their personnel as well as the communities they serve.  They are exceptional leaders who are experienced and smart. But each of them will tell you there is some level of crap-shooting in this environment.

And every moment it gets worse.

Basically, this country is on lockdown for two weeks, which sounds like it would make it easy for the police.  No bar fights in states that have no bars open, right? Well, again, it’s not that clear-cut.

We have incredibly nervous people who are afraid that their lives will never recover. Some have lost their jobs, others are afraid they will. They’re dealing with intensely personal and professional pressures they’ve likely never faced to this degree before and they’re stuck in forced isolation with a whole lot of time on their hands to surf social media and find the crazies who contribute to the paranoia.  Explosive tensions will begin to boil.

If you’re a cop, you know what I’m saying is true.  I truly believe most people are good and rational.  But fear coupled with a high level of uncertainty and idle time to boil can drive even the most reasonable of us to become certifiably unreasonable.

Most people can contain their irrationality for two weeks of isolation. But more than two weeks?  My bet is police are going to be entering petri dish homes to go ‘hands-on.’ Then they become carriers, spreading the virus to their own homes and to the most vulnerable in their community.

So what, when and how?

What protective gear do they wear and when?  How do bosses decide what to issue and how to train?  And if they issue unnecessarily (in hindsight), the shortage of protective gear becomes even more dire.

One of my instructors wrote me and said that in his jurisdiction they are forbidding personal travel out of state.  They are telling their cops you can’t go to wherever and see your son.  One officer did something similar to that and he was immediately quarantined in his home for two weeks. For going out of state!

So, what do you do with him once he’s back and he goes into one of those germ-infested homes to break up a domestic?  Weeks long quarantine? Remember, he crossed an imaginary line and was homebound for 14 days! 

How about an officer who fights with an intoxicated subject bleeding and spitting all over her? Quarantine, discard clothing, test her for coronavirus?

Most agencies already have limited personnel. Benching them is going to stretch the limits of officers to even more dangerous levels.  But letting them move from incident to incident, carrying potential virus contaminants?

How do you handle testing?  When and how often?  There are very limited testing kits throughout the country.

All these are tough questions requiring tough answers.

What we don’t need right now are people with hidden agendas second-guessing others making those tough decisions in order to take personal advantage.

For us in the law enforcement community: let’s stay in touch.  Let’s talk about what is working and what we find out isn’t working so well.  Share ideas (one of my instructor chiefs bought a steam cleaner for his officers to clean their uniforms).  And let’s support each other and all first responders.

Finally, share the funny stuff also.  It’s healthy to lighten things up. Send it to us at [email protected]. E-mail us anything that might cause a smile (such as the article about people calling 911 because they are out of toilet paper) and we’ll look to share it with others.

Above all, stay safe and positive.  We’ll get through this.

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Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.