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Protecting Law Enforcement Officers During the Coronavirus

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is here in the U.S., and there are reports of law enforcement officers testing positive. In New York City, there has been an increase in confirmed sick reports and exposures related to the virus at police and correction departments.

If this continues, law enforcement agencies across the nation may be at risk of not being able to maintain the necessary force levels to provide adequate services to their communities. To stop this from happening, let’s dig deeper into how the coronavirus spreads, to help inform what actions we should take next.

COVID-19: What is a Virus?

Pathogens are biological organisms and proteins – such as bacteria, viruses and toxins – that can produce diseases. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on COVID-19, which is a virus.

A virus is a parasitic microorganism that requires portions of the host’s cellular metabolism or DNA/RNA to replicate. To simplify this, it enters a host and attaches to a cell. It injects its DNA/RNA into the cell, where it uses either the host’s cellular metabolism or incorporates into the host’s own DNA/RNA to replicate.

If it uses the host’s cellular metabolism to replicate, after the cell fills with new viruses, the viruses break out of the cell and seek other cells to attach to and repeat this process.

If it has incorporated into the DNA/RNA, when the host’s cells replicate, the virus also gets replicated within the cells without having to break out.

When enough virus cells are produced and cellular damage occurs to the host, the host begins to show symptoms of the disease the virus produces.

How Does a Human Contract the Coronavirus?

There are several routes of entry a virus can take to enter a person, including inhalation (respiratory tracks) and ingestion (gastrointestinal tracks). Other ways a virus can enter into a system include injection (like a mosquito), the eyes, broken skin and more.

At this point, it appears that the COVID-19 virus enters a person’s system through inhalation, ingestion, the eyes and broken skin – similar to the Flu. That does not necessarily rule out other points of entry, however, which means we need to carefully navigate our interactions with other people.

For law enforcement whose job it is to interact with the public all day, make arrests, go to courts, etc, limiting interactions to prevent the spread of this virus is a difficult feat – and could have consequences on the safety of our communities if we don’t properly act.

How Can Law Enforcement Officers Protect Themselves at Work?

Above everything, officers must first be diligent, taking all reasonable precautions and adhering to official agency guidelines.

However, the officer’s department or agency has the legal responsibility to protect law enforcement officers from the COVID-19 threat.

The Employer Responsibility

Employers are responsible to protect you from this virus while you work under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Specifically:

I have spoken about this in previous articles, but it bears repeating. There are many subsections of the above regulations that law enforcement departments or agencies are required to follow in order to protect their officers. Please take the time to review all of them.

Test Officers & Cohabitants for COVID-19

Agencies should provide testing for COVID-19. Your agency should work with your public health lab to work this out. This testing will establish the force level readiness baseline for the entire department and determines if some officers are already infected.

If infected, medical professionals should determine your next steps for treatment and isolation. You will be put out sick until such time as medical professionals say you can go back to work.

Your agency or department should also have all the people you live with tested as well. What’s the sense of testing your officer, only to have them go home to their residence where there may be an infected cohabitant? If you want to preserve your force levels, you need to know what’s going on at your officer’s residence.

At the start of your tour of duty, you should also have your blood pressure, pulse and temperature taken to get your baseline vitals, ensuring that you can work that tour.

Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

You should also consider wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), up to a Hazmat level C ensemble, during your tour.

With that said, here are my PPE recommendations to protect active duty patrol officers, according to each method the coronavirus can potentially transmit:

  1. Inhalation
  • N95 HEPA Air Purifying Respirator (APR) for patrol duties and direct contact with possible infected person(s)
  • MSA Millennium Full Face APR with HEPA Cartridge for direct contact with known infected person(s), part of Level C Hazmat ensemble
  1. Ingestion
  • N95 HEPA APR for patrol duties and direct contact with possible infected person(s)
  • MSA Millennium Full Face APR with HEPA Cartridge for direct contact with known infected person(s), part of Level C Hazmat ensemble
  1. Injection

Unbroken skin is your first line of defense against most pathogens. No bacteria or virus can get into your body through unbroken skin without the aid of specific chemicals. At this time, to protect the skin, I recommend the officer’s standard duty uniform with long sleeve shirts, for patrol duties, as well as:

  • Knit beanie cap
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Mosquito Repellant with a high DEET content, seasonal
  • Tyvek or Tychem F suit with hood and booties and Nitrile gloves for direct contact with known infected person(s), part of Level C Hazmat ensemble
  1. Conjunctival (Eyes)
  • Safety Goggles for patrol duties and direct contact with possible infected person(s)
  • MSA Millennium Full Face APR with HEPA Cartridge for direct contact with known infected person(s), part of Level C Hazmat ensemble
  1. Dermal (Broken Skin)
  • Duty uniform with long sleeve shirt, knit beanie cap and Nitrile gloves for patrol duties and direct contact with possible infected person(s)
  • Tyvek or Tychem F suit with hood and booties and Nitrile gloves for direct contact with known infected person(s), part of Level C Hazmat ensemble

Disinfection and Decontamination Protocols

All officers should take some standard protections, such as those recommended by the CDC:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 70% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Throw used tissues in the trash.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. For law enforcement, this includes your lockers, cruisers (RMPs for NYPD), duty rigs and all equipment on it.
  • Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.

To disinfect, most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work. Use disinfectants appropriate for the surface. Some options include:

  • Diluting your household bleach with water (follow manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. Unexpired household bleach will be effective against coronaviruses when properly diluted.)
  • Disinfect with solutions that have at least 70% alcohol.
  • Products with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens

Officers should be issued 70% alcohol hand sanitizer, plastic bags for uniforms and biohazard waste bags for any PPE.

At the end of the tour of duty, the agency should have a dedicated area and protocols to safely remove duty uniforms and PPE, especially if you suspect you have come in contact with an infected person(s) during your tour.

Decontamination Example Protocol

You should leave your gloves and APR on while you carefully remove your duty rig and disinfect/decontaminate it and place it in a clean bag. Seal it once completed.

Next, while still wearing your APR and gloves, carefully remove your uniform and place it in the appropriate bag and seal for later cleaning.

Next, disinfect/decontaminate the outside of the bags.

Next, bring your uniform to your command’s laundry area (washing machines and dryers) and have your uniform washed.

Finally, remove PPE and dispose of them in the proper Bio-Hazard Waste.

Secure your belongings and shower, then dress into your clean street clothes, remove your duty rig from the bag and store appropriately per your agency’s protocols.

Then, before you leave for the day, have your blood pressure, pulse and temperature taken to compare to the vitals taken at the start of your tour, to ensure you are not in need of medical attention and you are fit to go home.

As for your duty uniform, it would be a best practice that your agency provides washing machines and dryers at each command so that uniforms can be securely and properly cleaned without having to transport them to another location. If this is not available, your agency is responsible to make arrangements for the cleaning of the uniforms suspected of being contaminated. If they don’t, I recommend that you don’t bring them home to clean.

If you were wearing hazmat level C PPE ensemble because of direct contact with known infected person(s), then you will have to follow your agency’s Biological Hazmat Decontamination procedures for you to safely remove your PPE.

OSHA 1910.120(q) has set guidelines for Hazmat Level C PPE decontamination that you can follow.


I hope this is helpful to you officers. Good luck, God Bless and stay safe.

Ed Wallace is a retired First Grade Detective from the NYPD, certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst and senior instructor and lead course developer at Louisiana State University, National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education. As a Software Consultant at CrimeCenter, Ed works directly with law enforcement to assist in the training and implementation of CrimeCenter Software. Connect with Ed on LinkedIn.

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