Metro Atlanta police adjust operations, services amid coronavirus

Police departments across metro Atlanta want you to know that they are still on duty and able to respond to emergency situations in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

But as some police department headquarters close their doors to the public, the level of service available to you may depend on where you live. Each department is making their own policies for operating amid the pandemic; no mandate has been given by the state or federal government on if or how they should adjust.

The Centers for Disease Control has released tips for how law enforcement officers should avoid contracting the virus. But without more specific guidelines from state or federal authorities about what police departments should do, individual agencies are drafting their own plans to help stop the spread of the coronavirus — a sign of the frenetic nature of the outbreak.

Most law enforcement agencies are working to limit unnecessary contact with the public and rearranging shifts so that they can keep staff in place in case of illnesses on their own force.

In Sandy Springs, the police department is closing its headquarters to the public “until further notice,” the agency announced Sunday. Residents can call the department to file a non-emergency police report, but services like criminal histories, background checks and permit applications will be affected because of the closure. Brookhaven made the same decision Monday.

Marietta’s police department building is staying open, but officers are instructed to take reports from residents outside the facility. The Lawrenceville Police Department is handling an increased number of reports over the phone, including cases of theft and fraud.

DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha Ramos said the department is cutting down on its interactions with the public whenever possible and is not allowing public access to its facilities. But she said the department is still able to provide nearly all of its regular services.

The agency has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but Ramos said fewer than 10 employees have stayed home because they did not feel well. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said six officers were out sick Monday, but it is not clear if they have COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.

“Their doctors aren’t testing them. They’re telling them to stay home,” Shields said in an interview with Channel 2 Action News. “We have to make sure they’re home and rested because that’s the best antidote for anything.”

Police and sheriff’s departments must have contingency plans to remain staffed when officers must stay home sick or under self-quarantine. Detectives on the Lawrenceville force, fewer than 100 sworn officers total, are preparing to fill in for patrol officers when necessary. The DeKalb County Police Department, one of the largest departments in the state, is also instructing its detectives to suit up as backup reserve officers to ensure that the department is properly staffed. When on duty, DeKalb officers have been told to stay six feet away from other people whenever possible, Ramos said.

The Atlanta Police Department put together a plan that assumes more of its officers could become sick or need to quarantine. Should that happen, Atlanta police will primarily focus on crises and emergency calls, department spokesman Carlos Campos said.

“At present, there has been no impact on our ability to respond to calls for service and no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in our department,” Campos said in a statement. He added that “if it is a situation that does not require a police officer, we will not respond.”

Some police departments have instructed their civilian staff to work remotely. Many also implemented systems like Sandy Springs’, reducing human interaction needed to make reports. DeKalb police closed its front desks at its headquarters in Tucker, instead providing a list of phone numbers for various divisions within the department.

Sheriff’s offices have also taken precautions for metro Atlanta jails. Both Gwinnett and DeKalb jails are screening inmates for symptoms of COVID-19. Gwinnett is also screening visitors, using a touch-free infrared thermometer on each person who wishes to visit an inmate. Anyone with an elevated temperature will be turned away.