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Policing empty streets amid coronavirus: Cops are killjoys, bearers of goodwill

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Officers Nick Ferara and Dan Brown distribute items to residents in San Pedro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The police officers chased the suspected thief on foot, losing sight of him and spotting him again on the west side of Los Angeles.

They caught up and slapped handcuffs around his wrists. Then, the adrenaline gave way to concern.

“I had to put hands on this guy. … Did I have my mask on?” LAPD Sgt. Aron Alagren, who supervised the officers, said of the second thoughts cops sometimes had in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the weeks since that mid-March encounter, the virus has tightened its grip on the city. Donning a mask has become second nature for police officers pursuing a fleeing suspect or pulling over a reckless driver.

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Veteran officers who have seen it all — riots, earthquakes, the HIV epidemic on Skid Row — have never seen anything like this.

Elite detectives are guarding homeless shelters. Police cruisers patrol alone on streets normally teeming with traffic.

House parties, picnics in the park and restaurant dining are not only illegal but downright dangerous. What was once grounds for arrest or citation— using narcotics, blocking the sidewalk with a tent — is now tacitly permitted.

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Sgt. Catherine Plows , left, and Officer Jorge Noriega from LAPD Harbor Station patrol Point Fermin Park in San Pedro. They remind people that it is OK to run or walk but not OK to linger during the coronavirus restrictions.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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For the most part, police officers in Los Angeles are not handing out tickets for violating stay-at-home orders. Instead, they remind people about social distancing rules and encourage them to wear masks.

“I told them, ‘Look, I’m not here to put you under martial law and require you to be stir-crazy in the house,’” said Rusty Redican, an LAPD officer who works on a homelessness task force in West L.A. “I just have a conversation with them and just tell them to abide by the rules and regulations.”

In Long Beach, however, as the weather warms and outdoor gatherings grow more tempting, officers have been instructed to issue citations, which can cost as much as $1,000.

Normally stoic in the face of danger, police officers are coming to terms with their own vulnerability, including the risk of infecting their families after interacting with countless community members and co-workers each day.

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There are 110 LAPD employees, both civilian and sworn, who have tested positive for the coronavirus. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 130 employees have been infected. Two Riverside County sheriff’s deputies and a Santa Rosa police detective have died of the virus.

Maribel Hernandez-Ramirez, who visits homeless encampments daily as a senior lead officer in the LAPD’s Harbor Division, isolated herself when she became sick. Her test ultimately came back negative.

“I couldn’t hug my kids. That was the hardest part,” she said. “I haven’t seen my dad in over a month. My dad lives by himself. That’s heartbreaking.”

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Sgt. Catherine Plows from LAPD Harbor Station patrols Point Fermin Park in San Pedro.
Sgt. Catherine Plows from LAPD Harbor Station patrols Point Fermin Park in San Pedro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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In the weeks after stay-at-home orders from state and local officials, crime in Los Angeles took a nosedive.

By the end of April, crime was down 22% from the same period last year. Yet the average daily number of 911 calls routed to the LAPD stayed relatively steady, with some complaints bearing an unmistakable coronavirus stamp.

Through April 24, disputes between roommates and between neighbors were up about 50% on average, according to a Times analysis of LAPD call data before and after the mid-March stay-at-home orders. Landlord-tenant disputes were up 30% during that time.

Meanwhile, LAPD officers made 37% fewer arrests for misdemeanors such as narcotics possession compared with the same period last year, according to Chief Michel Moore. They were instructed to scale back on such arrests to minimize physical contact with suspects and to avoid sending minor offenders to jails, where the virus can easily spread.

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As people tire of being shut in, there are signs that the downward trends are reversing. There have been more cars on the streets recently, along with upticks in traffic collisions and crime.

Officer Junior Nua sets out in his car wearing a black cloth mask at LAPD Harbor Station in San Pedro.  Officers have been issued two cloth masks and are required to take their temperature on entering work to make sure they are healthy.
Officer Junior Nua sets out in his car wearing a black cloth mask at LAPD Harbor Station in San Pedro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

N95 masks, in short supply at the department, as elsewhere, are reserved for contact with people with COVID-19 symptoms. For most encounters, LAPD officers wear washable black masks. They ask people who have called for help to meet them outside at a safe distance, rather than knocking and entering homes.

Despite the drop in crime, there is plenty for police officers to do. Sometimes, they marvel at the weirdness of policing during coronavirus.

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Brent Hopkins, who was among the LAPD detectives reassigned to some patrol duties in the early days of the pandemic, said a man flagged him down asking where to find a good deal on toilet paper. At a Trader Joe’s, Hopkins responded to a call about a crowd disturbing the peace, only to find people politely waiting to enter the store under social distancing rules.

In Watts, LAPD officers are working with community leaders to calibrate mourning rituals after several funerals for coronavirus victims drew crowds.

With L.A. County courts operating on a no-bail policy for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies, cops are running into the same suspects again and again. One woman in the San Pedro area was arrested for stealing a car, then stole another in the same week, officers said.

“They’ll be released before the paperwork is finished,” said Alagren, the LAPD sergeant. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they’re doing that to try and stop the spread of the virus. I don’t want to say it’s disconcerting, but it is odd.”

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With most people stuck at home, police officers around the country have become vital bearers of goodwill, delivering food to elderly residents and organizing donations to help people thrown out of work by the virus.

Videos on social media show caravans of patrol cars flipping on their sirens and parading past children celebrating their birthdays without friends.

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As enforcers of the new normal, police officers have had to be killjoys, shutting down livelihoods and pastimes.

One day at a skate park in San Pedro, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Dan Brown advised young people not to hang out. When he returned a few hours later, a different group was there, less than six feet apart. Later, yet another group appeared.

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Early on in the pandemic, Brown made sure restaurants shut their doors except for takeout and delivery.

It is hard to explain to irritated residents why he is no longer ticketing broken-down cars parked on the street (department policy, because so many have lost their jobs) or why officers did not break up the party next door (they urge people to avoid gatherings but do not force them to leave).

Sgt. Catherine Plows organizes donation items at LAPD Harbor Station in San Pedro.
Sgt. Catherine Plows organizes donation items for the community at LAPD Harbor Station in San Pedro.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Some elderly residents, at a loss for where else to turn, dialed the LAPD’s Harbor station, desperate for groceries. Officers went to Smart and Final and made deliveries.

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Nick Ferara, also a senior lead officer in Harbor Division, fielded a request to check on an elderly woman. He bought groceries for her with his own money, then did the same for 20 other residents.

People started sending donations. On April 29, Ferara and his colleagues delivered food and toys to 150 families.

In the beginning, many LAPD officers were not worried about the coronavirus. They had signed up to be on the front lines. They were physically fit and ready for any challenge.

Now, with co-workers sickened and the devastating effect on the community surrounding them every day, the reality has hit home.

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“In addition to the work that policemen do that’s stressful on a daily basis, now you have to worry about this? It’s hard,” said Sgt. Catherine Plows, who supervises the Harbor Division senior lead officers. “We do generally talk every day and try to make sure that everybody’s in a good head space, that they’re feeling all right — because we’re here every single day.”

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.


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