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Long Beach police orchestrated a coronavirus super-spreader event, complaint alleges

In the photo released by the Long Beach Police Department, officers are masked
In the official photo released by the Long Beach Police Department, officers are masked. The Long Beach Post published a story with a photo of hundreds of officers gathered without wearing masks.
(Long Beach Police Department)

An outbreak of coronavirus at the Long Beach Police Department, following a training session where hundreds of officers reportedly gathered indoors without masks, has some residents charging that police held a super-spreader event.

A complaint filed this week with the Citizen Police Complaint Coalition centers on a large gathering of police officers Nov. 5 at the Long Beach Convention Center. Police had just completed a series of training exercises to prepare for potential unrest around the time of the election, Chief Robert Luna said in an interview last week. The chief stopped by to address the officers for about 10 minutes, praising them for working “their butts off this year.”

“As police chief, I needed to get in front of my men and women,” Luna said. “I wanted to thank them for their commitment, their personal sacrifice. … Not only for that week but everything they had been through that year.”

Many of the hundreds of officers gathered at the center didn’t wear masks, according to a photo the Long Beach Post published about a month later — alongside the Police Department’s official photo of the group, all wearing masks. The story sparked criticism, including from the two activist groups People of Long Beach and Long Beach Reform Coalition that signed the complaint.

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Soon after the Nov. 5 gathering, coronavirus cases in the department started surging. Of the 99 COVID cases the LBPD has counted since the beginning of the pandemic, 63 occurred since Nov. 1, a department spokesperson said Thursday.

Luna said that no cases in the recent outbreak have been linked to the training, citing an internal contact tracing detail. But Carlos Ovalle, executive director of People of Long Beach, isn’t buying it.

“We essentially are being asked to believe the police chief that the police is policing itself. I find that highly suspect,” Ovalle said. “To me, it makes [no] sense that you have a large event, maskless, no social distancing — and coincidentally, all of a sudden, these police officers come down with COVID.”

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Ovalle said he’s witnessed police officers not following protocol for wearing personal protective equipment for months. On one occasion, he recorded a video of several officers standing close together in line, then entering a bakery without wearing masks, despite posted signs to do so. He’s offered to give city employees masks for free.

“To me, it’s critical that first responders follow the rules,” Ovalle said. “Not only are our lives dependent on them [and] the safety of the citizens, but they are constantly in contact with a segment of the population that is most at risk — Black, Indigenous, Latino people of color.”

In filing the complaint, Ovalle said he hopes the commission does independent contact tracing to determine the origin of the department’s outbreak. He also alleges in the complaint that the photo of masked officers was taken days after training events, at a gathering specifically designed for a photo op. A Police Department spokesperson denied the allegation.

In acknowledging the incident, Luna said he wished he “could’ve done it differently.”

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“As I sit here today and I reflect back on it, I should’ve absolutely made sure everybody had a face covering before I walked in there,” Luna said last week. “Obviously when I think about the potentialities of somebody getting sick because I was addressing this group, that would be very difficult to live with. So I really regret that happening.”

In recent weeks, the department ramped up its prevention efforts, mandating officers wear masks on duty all the time, unless they are alone. Luna said the internal contact tracing detail has been working diligently to track the outbreak and recommend how to prevent the spread in potential hot spots for infection, such as a station’s break room.


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