When the Guelph Police Service announced that four patrol officers would be assigned to the city’s downtown starting April 1 there was little indication that they would be deployed into an area mostly vacated due to COVID-19.
The program is something that could have been postponed but wasn’t, said Sgt. Dustan Howe, who supervises the downtown resource officers.
“There wasn’t many people down here and I think it could have made sense to redeploy officers elsewhere to do other things, but we appreciate how important the downtown is to the city and to have a safe, vibrant downtown is something that is important to the police service, to the city and to the people who live and come downtown in Guelph,” said Howe.
Instead, the four officers were a visible fixture downtown, even as most shops and businesses were closed.
“These guys are all from Guelph, they have an interest in the downtown and the city itself,” said Howe. “At the very beginning of this, the most important thing was a continued model of service to the community that I don’t think was ever disrupted. If someone called we were always able to come and help. It just looked different because we had masks on.”
“They were down here when no one else was down here, for the most part,” said Howe. “The officers were down here and doing what they could to help out. It was a weird time to roll them out, for sure.”
In the last week, the downtown resource officers had a front seat for the reopening of patios downtown.
“It’s a healthy reopening and they get to be there and feel like a part of it more now than they maybe would have otherwise,” said Howe. “It’s exciting to see businesses coming back to life.”
Howe said the Guelph Police was well prepared for the pandemic, with a plan already in place from the service’s emergency management team and plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE) on hand.
“Obviously being on the front lines, they’re exposed to situations and people where there have been outbreaks and people who have been COVID positive and it’s a scary thing for them because they don’t want to take it home to their children or loved ones or other people,” said Howe. “As the public experienced that fear and confusion about it, we as officers did as well, but that’s part of the job and what we signed up to do.”
Cross-contaminating scenes and with other emergency services has also been a concern.
“If we are in a place where there has been an outbreak and then we get a call half an hour later, we would certainly hate to be the people that transmit it to another member of the community, so we take our time and take precautions,” said Howe.
He notes that the Clair Road Emergency Services Centre is a shared building between emergency services.
“You would hate to see someone in there get it because it would cross contaminate through all of the emergency services, so we have to be extra cautious there,” he said.
Ongoing challenges include keeping shared equipment clean during the pandemic.
“Our bubble was big because things like shared equipment, shared batteries, shared conducted energy weapons, patrol rifles, cruisers — everything is shared so there is a lot of upkeep for making sure they were all cleaned and sanitized,” said Howe.
Much of the department’s training was moved to e-learning and physical distancing had to be employed at other training facilities, like the firing range.
In some situations it’s harder to maintain that distancing.
“When a new officer is hired they have to be coached and spend a certain number of shifts with a coach officer. To not be together in a police car when you are being coached is impractical and a risk management issue to put someone in a police car with lights and sirens when they aren’t trained properly for it,” said Howe.
“When you have to put handcuffs on somebody you can’t do that six feet apart, you have to do that closely,” he added.
Situations where officers are not able to maintain physical distancing is when the PPE and hand washing kicks in, said Howe.
“All of those things public health tells us to do,” he said.
No Guelph Police staff had contracted COVID-19, as of last month’s report by Chief Gord Cobey to the Police Services Board.
“I think people are relieved about that, but this isn’t the time to relax and stop taking those measures,” said Howe.