As coronavirus cases spike, metro Atlanta police departments look to protect officers

Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields says “the coronavirus is absolutely top of our mind.”
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Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields says “the coronavirus is absolutely top of our mind.”

As the number of coronavirus cases in Georgia increases, law enforcement officers across metro Atlanta are taking additional measures to protect themselves while still fulfilling their obligations to the public.

Some departments are having 911 operators ask additional questions about medical calls. Others are asking residents to file non-emergency police reports online, if possible.

For sheriff’s offices, the steady flow of inmates in and out of county jails poses another concern. What happens if someone with COVID-19 gets booked and infects the inmate population?

Gwinnett County police officers have been issued N-95 masks and been instructed to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet when making contact with infected individuals,  and state troopers are taking extra steps to clean and sanitize their take-home vehicles.

Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields said given the rise in coronavirus infections, it’s important for officers to exercise more precaution when responding to certain calls.

“The coronavirus is absolutely top of our mind,” she said, adding that the global pandemic dominated her department’s weekly crime meeting Thursday morning. “It’s imperative that we keep folks healthy so that we can do our job. We’re acutely aware of it and we’re taking steps to mitigate the possibility of our employees being exposed to it.”

RELATED: Georgia reports 1st coronavirus-related death

Officials have canceled large gatherings and postponed sporting events indefinitely, including the NCAA’s Final Four, which was scheduled to be held in Atlanta. Most metro Atlanta public school systems announced they would shutter and Gov. Brian Kemp urged older residents to avoid crowds. Additionally, the University System of Georgia canceled classes at all 26 institutions.

MORE: Coronavirus forcing all metro Atlanta school districts to move online

One step local police are taking to protect themselves, Shields said, is having 911 dispatchers screen medical calls in greater detail.

“Is this a person who’s having an allergic reaction to peanut butter or is this someone who’s had symptoms that may align with the virus?” she said.

In cases where a patient may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, EMTs would go in first before giving the all-clear to Atlanta firefighters and police. That’s assuming police intervention isn’t needed immediately.

David Beranek (right), operation field supervisor at Metro Atlanta Ambulance Services, assists Anthony Zajac (left), a clinical field supervisor, with his protective gear.
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David Beranek (right), operation field supervisor at Metro Atlanta Ambulance Services, assists Anthony Zajac (left), a clinical field supervisor, with his protective gear.

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

ALSO: First responders brace for strain from coronavirus

Additionally, officers across the state are “doubling down” on their efforts to sanitize precincts, and employees are encouraged to stay home if they don’t feel well.

MORE: Georgia legislature suspending session indefinitely amid coronavirus

In Cherokee County, Sheriff Frank Reynolds said he has another concern: protecting the county’s roughly 550 inmates.

Reynolds said he’s been communicating with judges and courthouse officials about using video conferencing technology for court appearances rather than driving inmates to and from the jail.

More inmates are also utilizing technology to communicate with loved ones remotely instead of visiting them in person, he said.

“That cuts down on having to move an inmate across the jail or letting someone else inside,” Reynolds said. “We haven’t changed our day-to-day operations, we’ve just changed a few tactics to avoid getting contaminated.”

RELATED: Gyms in metro Atlanta respond to coronavirus by exercising caution

Inmates are medically screened before being booked into the jail, and Reynolds said it’s important to keep anyone who may show symptoms away from the general population.

Deputies on patrol are encouraged to wash their hands frequently while utilizing “social distancing” techniques when responding to calls, Reynolds said.

“One of the things we’ve started doing is not letting people use our pens when issuing citations,” he said, “or at least give them a different one they can use and then we clean it.”

On Friday, Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher issued an emergency order suspending jury trials for 30 days.

MORE: Fulton County suspends trials for next 30 days

“Furthermore, no non-essential matters shall be heard by the courts during this 30-day time period unless they can be conducted via video or teleconferencing,” he wrote.

In Canton, police officers have been instructed to use gloves and masks if they come into contact with residents exhibiting symptoms such as sneezing and coughing.

Officers have also been instructed to take all non-emergency reports by phone.

“Taking reports over the phone will limit the chances of spreading any illnesses and help reduce the chance of spreading the virus to the people we are trying to protect,” Canton police Chief Stephen Merrifield said in a statement. “The coronavirus won’t stop our police work from happening, but we need to make wise decisions and reduce the risk to exposure.”

ALSO: Georgia university system reverses course, suspends instruction for two weeks

With more residents opting to work from home and staying away from large events, Shields said she expects Atlanta officers may respond to fewer automobile wrecks in the coming weeks.

Overall, however, she expects an uptick in the number of medical calls from residents who are concerned about their symptoms. And with schools opting to cancel classes, Shields said officers could see an increase in the number of cases involving juveniles.

“This is business as usual and it isn’t something to get panicked over, but it is important to remain thoughtful in your decision making,” Shields said. “I think it’s completely manageable. There are just a few things we could tweak to ensure the majority of our personnel stay healthy.”

In other news: 

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State can do about 50 tests a day for the virus, by next week will be able to do 100 tests a day.