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How Local Police Are Making Arrests, Handling Stress In The Coronavirus Era

Chula Vista police officers Victor Del Rio and Javier Castillo talk on a depa...

Credit: Chula Vista Police Department

Above: Chula Vista police officers Victor Del Rio and Javier Castillo talk on a department video, April 9, 2020.

Police officers are trained to anticipate all manner of scenarios when they are on the street and have to make arrests.

But arresting while social distancing? That’s a new one.

Victor Del Rio, an officer with the Chula Vista Police Department, described an arrest he was involved in last week.

"He's running away from us and we had to catch up to him, make contact with him and place him under arrest and handcuff him," Del Rio said. "Obviously we are practicing our social distancing. We stay six feet from him and when we determine a crime has occurred, it's time to conduct our business and I'll tell him to please put his hands behind his back."

Police everywhere are seeing their jobs change in the coronavirus era—they're enforcing stay at home orders and keeping the peace at food banks and grocery stores. And they are, as Del Rio describes, social distancing when they can and also wearing masks and gloves at all times.

But an arrest is still an arrest and they have to come in close contact with people to do their jobs. It’s a new level of danger, with the slightest touch meaning they could get sick. The threat of the virus is ever present, said Del Rio's partner, Officer Javier Castillo.

"It always constantly crosses our mind, especially the most concerning part is contracting it, taking it to my family," Castillo said.

A New Approach

Phil Stinson, a former police officer who studies policing and criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, said he’s already seeing a change in the approach departments are taking.

"In other words, police officers are responding to calls for service, they're responding to 911 calls, but they're not being as aggressive in terms of proactive traffic enforcement and other types of activities," he said.

In March, arrests in Chula Vista were down by almost 50% from March of 2019. There were 343 in Chula Vista last month, and 508 in March 2019.

San Diego police wouldn't make an officer available for an interview, but their arrests were down more than 20%. In March 2019, SDPD made 3,445 arrests, while last month they made 2,715 arrests.

RELATED: San Diego Police Have Yet To Issue Citations For Stay-At-Home Violations

Along with arrests being down, San Diego Police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said the department has made other changes, including making extra training videos on how to stay safe and healthy and giving officers emergency kits with sanitizers and masks. They also have counseling services available.

Other local agencies are also making changes. The San Diego Sheriff's Department changed its staffing to be ready to backfill for deputies who get sick, and some positions, such as school resource officers, have been rotated into existing patrol teams, according to a spokesman. El Cajon and La Mesa have not made staffing changes, but are providing officers with protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and have peer support programs in place.

Photo credit: Chula Vista Police Department

Chula Vista police officers talk to a woman in this undated photo.

In Chula Vista, Lt. Dan Peak said the department has switched to an emergency staffing plan that keeps teams separated and officers on reserve in case others get sick, having detectives ready to go out on patrol, and doing briefings outside with the team spread out instead of in a confined room.

Going forward, Stinson predicts that when police do have to make arrests, the charges could be aggravated.

"In other words, people are going to be charged with more charges or more serious charges than they otherwise would because they put the officers in more danger," he said.

So fewer arrests, but heftier charges for those who do end up in handcuffs.

Family Stress

In the short-term, officers are dealing with some of the same problems the rest of us are in addition to their job stress, Peak said.

"We may have officers now that have child care issues just like anybody else in the world right now, or maybe they have a spouse or significant other that lost their jobs," he said. "Now, maybe there's some financial issues. But on top of that, we're also asking our officers to go out and provide some service to the public while also knowing that there's this deadly virus."

Local law enforcement officers are emotionally drained because of the hyper-vigilance they have at all times, said Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod. She leads The Counseling Team International, which provides counseling services to many local law enforcement agencies, including in the Sheriff's Department, Oceanside and National City police.

"They're going to show up and do the best job they can, but that doesn't take away the underlying fear of taking it home, am I carrying it, does that person I just arrested and put in the back of my car, does he have it, what was that cough, why did he sneeze," she said.

Dr. Bohl-Penrod worries about officers taking these additional stresses home with them, and ratcheting up tensions with spouses and children.

"Many have told me their spouses don't want them to come back, want them to stay at the station until this is over," she said. "That's hard because they want to sleep in their own beds, and don't want pushback from their families."

She's telling her clients to eat healthy, exercise, talk with family and maybe even keep a journal.

"Law enforcement are instant gratifiers, they wanted it yesterday, it's really hard to be patient and say OK, this is what we're in now," she said. "They have to stay positive, this will pass, we're a strong nation, we have strong communities, and this will pass."

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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