Chris Lewis, chief of the Topsham Police Department, is one of many law enforcement officers having to adapt more cautious practices in amid the coronavirus epidemic. Courtesy Gabrielle Mathieu

BRUNSWICK — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, local police departments have become more vigilant than ever about protecting themselves and the public with which they work from infection.

Many factors always play into whether officers enforce a situation, Brunswick Police Commander Mark Waltz said. “If we wanted to, probably 20% of the cars down the street have an expired inspection sticker,” he said. “You pick which ones you want to pull over even in good circumstances.”

But with more than 300 cases and five deaths from COVID-19 in Maine as of April 1, and that number steadily increasing, circumstances are far from good.

“What this has done is added an extra concern,” Waltz said. “Obviously if one of our officers gets exposed to COVID, not only could that officer get sick, but it could impact other officers, so I guess you would call it a force protection decision (to be made) as we weigh ‘is this person worth interacting with at this point in time.'”

Comparing data between this year and last shows a decrease in activity for all three departments.

From March 13, when Maine reported its first infection, to March 25, Brunswick Police had 1,034 calls for service, along with 15 arrests and eight summonses. Last year during that same period, there were 1,519 calls for service, 26 arrests and 35 summonses, according to Waltz. Calls for service aren’t just people who call dispatch, but officer-initiated interactions as well, he noted.

There are fewer of both types of cases, in part because police are being more judicious in traffic stops, but also because many businesses are closed. “You can’t have a shoplifter at a business if the business isn’t open,” he said. And, with bars closed, the same goes for fewer drunk driving arrests.

“As people stay home,” Waltz said, “they tend to stay out of more mischief.”

With officers less busy with enforcement, they are allocating their time to other community efforts. For example, with schools closed, Brunswick’s school resource officer is following up with students the high school has been unable to reach about doing online school work, possibly because their homes lack internet, Waltz said. The officer has asked permission to drop off classwork packets at those students’ homes.

Bath Police had 233 calls and nine criminal charges last March 13-25, versus 177 calls and one criminal charge during that period this year. To limit the number of people at the station, patrolmen work in 12-hour shifts with no overlap with other officers, “so you don’t have guys riding around in cruisers together,” instead of running three, 10-hour shifts per day, with overlaps, Lt. Andrew Booth said.

“It hasn’t diminished our ability to respond to calls,” he said, but the station is a lot quieter, with administrative staff mostly working from home. Booth and Chief Mike Field are also usually in the office at separate times.

Normal walk-in civilian complaints are suspended, with people have been asked to call the station instead. “We don’t want people coming into the public area, because that puts them at risk of getting an exposure from the person that was in there right before them,” Booth said.

Police aren’t strangers to apprehending people who have a disease, or dealing with blood, and can use masks, gloves and eye glasses, he explained. “We arrest people that have HIV, that have (Hepatitis) A, B and C, you name it; we’ve been trained on infectious diseases, and how to protect ourselves as much as possible.”

Law enforcement is focusing on public safety-type crimes, such as drunk driving and assaults, but placing less priority on lighter traffic infractions like expired inspection or registration stickers, Booth said. Plus, the state has allowed for all nearly-expired motor vehicle and trailer registrations to be extended 30 days following the termination of Maine’s COVID-19 state of emergency.

The Topsham Police Department’s call volume between March 13-25, 2019 was 148, compared with 118 this year, according to Chief Chris Lewis. Traffic stops sank from 156 to 40.

“Call volume has been directly impacted, and the officers are not aggressively patrolling and seeking things out like they normally would, because it’s limiting contact,” Lewis said. “We have to modify what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, while maintaining our presence.”

“Anybody that’s going to be interacting with the public, that has supplies and providing services, that’s where we’ve reallocated our time and our resources,” the chief said, “to make sure that they see us, and we see them.”

The department has been guided by entities like the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Police Chiefs Association in taking measures to minimize contact, Lewis said, to “reduce not only our exposure, but bringing it back into the police department itself.”

Those precautions are critical, he noted, because “if it comes down to it, law enforcement is one of the last agencies to receive medical-grade protection.” His officers must be cautious about the supplies it goes through, such as masks and gloves.

Minimizing contact means not touching people’s drivers licenses or paperwork, Lewis said. The officer instead writes down information as the owner holds up the document, as opposed to bringing it back to the police cruiser.

“We’re having to disinfect our equipment,” he said. “If we have to go into somebody’s house, our own clothing has to be disinfected.”

“All of these are extra precautions that we’re trying to do so that we’re not only protecting ourselves, but we’re protecting our families as well,” Lewis said.

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