The 911 call came in on a rainy afternoon. The flustered caller told the operator what she knew: It was a group of people, primarily men, and they were gathering in the park. Under a sky shrouded in gray, the group started a friendly game of football.
In normal circumstances, this call would have probably never happened. But as the COVID-19 pandemic started to impact North Texas, citizens turned to the police for answers.
“A lot of people are concerned,” says Plano Police Chief Ed Drain on a phone call in late March. “A lot of officers are concerned, too.”
Collin County saw the first signs of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in the first weeks of that month. By Tuesday, March 24, a spike in cases prompted Judge Chris Hill to issue a “Shelter-in-Place” order, a move typically reserved for mass shootings and natural disasters. Unlike the order issued by officials in Dallas County, the order in Collin County allowed businesses to remain open even if they are not deemed “essential.” Amid this confusion, local police find themselves in the familiar role of peacekeeper. That’s about the only thing that’s familiar about their current reality.
“They’re still figuring out how to respond to this,” Drain says of the public. “It’s difficult, because the situation is changing every day.”
By early April, news broke that four Plano police officers had contracted the potentially lethal virus. By the time this story is in print, that number could be even higher.
Rain pounded the pavement as Ed Drain bounded through the doors of Plano’s Emergency Operations Center. It was less than a month into his new job, and the new police chief was already facing a crisis.
Drain walked into his regularly scheduled morning briefing, prepared to address his new colleagues. The room typically holds a robust team of leaders from offices across the city, including the fire department and the city manager’s office. Today, as Drain walks in, the room is empty.
Back in 1994, a 33-year-old Drain joined the Plano police force as a military man looking for a stable new career. After spending two decades working his way up the ranks, Drain went west, taking the chief job in Amarillo in 2016. When the job for Plano’s top cop opened up three years later, Drain found his way back to his former stomping grounds. His homecoming should have been a triumphant moment for the city, a chance to celebrate a seasoned law enforcement veteran returning to his roots. It was anything but a celebration.
“I spent my first week getting to know the folks I hadn’t known before,” Drain says. “I wanted to find out the more pressing issues. It turns out, there was one big issue.”
Five days after Drain’s chiefdom began, COVID-19 claimed its first victim on United States soil. While health experts are still learning about the new coronavirus, its rapid spread from its origins in China has incited a global panic. As of this writing, at least 2.5 million people have been infected by the disease. The exact number is unknown—and almost certainly much higher. The virus has ravaged healthcare systems and economies on a world tour of devastation.
Soon after it claimed its first American victim, the virus spread to all 50 states. And before Drain reached his one-month anniversary, six Texans had died—including one in Collin County. The Chief tried to hit the ground running, but he realized he and his team were slowly losing ground to a force far beyond their control.
“There’s a lot of moving parts with something like this, and a lot of angst within our employees,” Drain admits.
By mid-March, at least one Plano police officer had tested positive for COVID-19, heightening that angst. With officers wary of an unseen, insidious new enemy, Drain re-evaluated safety measures. Regardless of the severity of their symptoms, police officers who test positive for the virus must remain quarantined at home for 14 days. Many others have also been ordered to remain home, having been in contact with the officers who tested positive. To compensate for the imbalance in fieldwork, some detectives and officers accustomed to office roles may be thrust into the field. Every officer who heads out on patrol is armed with PPE like gloves and masks. Detectives are now working from libraries, and analysts are working from home. The police department has asked the public to refrain from entering the station and to report crimes online if they are not an emergency. Yet what exactly constitutes an emergency—or even a crime—is a point of contention.
Before Collin County’s “shelter-in-place” order, a gathering like a football game would have been ill-advised, yet legal. However, a class hosted by a gym would have been deemed illegal and broken up by the police. Now that the order is in place, the waters are murkier.
In Denton, spokeswoman Allison Beckwith says football games are, by nature, a large gathering. Thus, with a “shelter-in-place” in effect, they are illegal. Since the order in effect in Collin County does not include a penalty clause, police will respond to calls about football games, but can only “suggest” that the players dissipate. Just as citizens of both areas may look to the police for answers, those same officers are looking to local judges, the city council, the CDC, and the federal government. They’re getting contradictory advice from the White House, and as summer nears, they’ll have to contend with a gradual reopening of public spaces.
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Drain insists that police will remain as hands-off as possible as long as Judge Hill’s order is in effect. To that end, Class C misdemeanors—which includes offenses like disorderly conduct, public intoxication and driving without a license—are less likely to result in an arrest as long as a “shelter-in-place” is in effect. Less people in jail means less chance of an illness spreading. This kind of thinking is anathema to Drain, who has always prided himself on being approachable and engaging the community. While he continues to grapple with the threat posed by COVID-19, he tries to protect his officers without alienating his public.
“We have to figure out how to restrict facetime with the public while still being a presence,” he says. “That’s why it’s important for the community to do as many things as they can online, because we’re going to lose some officers.”
But despite the undeniable threat the virus poses to police officers, threats like domestic violence, child abuse and homelessness may still be around the corner. The unintended yet insidious trickle effect of social distancing is that police and their partners have been unable to prepare for those threats in the same way they have in the past.
Every summer, child safety advocates warn about the high potential for an increase in child abuse. With schools closed by COVID-19 and the economic stress of the pandemic, those concerns are rising even earlier this year.
Doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth are alarmed by a spike in child abuse cases. According to Jamye Coffman, medical director of the Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, this spike mirrors what doctors saw after the stock market crash of 2008.
“We usually only average six deaths from abuse a year at Cook Children’s, and now we’ve had two children die on the same day,” Coffman said in late March. “This is an issue related to stress. We are seeing it from all over, from urban areas to more rural counties.”
Shortly after that statement, another child died from abuse after being taken to Cook Children’s Hospital. Another eight children were hospitalized and ultimately recovered—all in one month.
Across North Texas, chapters of Court Appointed Special Advocates have canceled home visits, removing a once reliable safeguard from child abuse. North Texas law enforcement officers are already bracing for a rise of child abuse in their respective counties, but the rigors of social distancing may prohibit the kind of comprehensive monitoring that is necessary in these cases.
In Denton, police officers have yet to see a significant spike in child abuse or domestic violence arrests. However, they know it could be coming.
“What we have to do now is make the public aware of that possibility,” says Allison Beckwith, a spokeswoman for the Denton Police Department. “We’re coming up with a plan for that, but we have to tell them, ‘Here are some resources for you if this happens in your home.’”
To help field an increase in COVID-19 calls, the Denton police department has established a new, non-emergency phone line. All Denton police officers now have protective masks in their vehicles, and like Plano, the Denton Police Department has barred visitors from entering their lobby. Denton police will also be issuing citations for Class C misdemeanors that do not pose an immediate threat to public safety.
“We’re hoping people recognize the gravity of the situation, and step up,” Beckwith says, “so that enforcement isn’t necessary.”
Officers in the Collin County Sheriff’s Office share that hope.
“In every case, Sheriff Skinner’s preference is to educate people rather than cite or arrest,” says Captain Nick Bristow. “The Sheriff is confident that the citizens of Collin County will continue to adhere to the orders of the County Judge, their local officials and Governor Abbott.”
Yet while law enforcement officers continue to hope, plans to cope with crimes like domestic violence have already been derailed.
Each year, the Plano Police Department conducts a strategic planning session with an outside facilitator. This spring, police brass were scheduled to meet with a domestic violence expert who would address the department’s strengths, shortcomings and opportunities. Because of the threat posed by COVID-19, that strategy session was canceled.
Ed Drain laments these cancelations. In addition to the strategy session with an outside consultant, the Plano police department had to cancel plans for a recruiting event designed to attract female interest in law enforcement. They also canceled a sexual assault defense class for the public. Regular briefings have changed too.
Each day, Drain meets with reps from the upper echelon of the city. They discuss the latest COVID-19 news and updates from their police and medical colleagues in North Texas. Shortly before Judge Hill issued the “shelter-in-place” order, the meeting moved remote. Now, leaders from the police department, the fire department, the emergency management office and the city manager’s office all telecommute into a chat room. The Emergency Operations Center is an empty room.
After exchanging greetings, they address the only item on the agenda: managing a pandemic. It’s a conundrum none of them have ever faced: How do you maintain the peace when you’re not even supposed to be outside? It’s particularly puzzling for Drain, who built his reputation in part on neighborhood policing. While problems like homelessness loom, Drain and his colleagues are still figuring out how–and if–they can respond to them while keeping police officers safe from COVID-19.
“We haven’t seen an uptick in violent crime yet, but over time, with more people staying in houses and apartments, we’re going to be keeping an eye on child abuse and domestic violence,” Drain says. “We don’t have a drastic homeless population in Plano. But if this drags on, it’s going to force people over the edge.”