Peacekeepers in a pandemic

It’s not easy being a cop. Even in the best of times, you get beaten on, spit on, vomited on, urinated on, and bled on. Some law enforcement officers get shot, stabbed, or hit by a car. Everyone who puts on a badge knows this. We go in with our eyes wide open.

What we don’t expect, however, until we see it firsthand, is the insidious danger of widespread public panic. My first experience with this was as a rookie patrol officer on the east coast during hurricane season. With a nasty storm in the forecast, everyone rushed to the store to buy toilet paper, water, paper towels, milk, diapers, and bread. Having weathered hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards growing up, I figured everyone would just go out to get what they needed and return home.

Not so much.

Calls for police began to crackle over the radio in our squad cars. We were dispatched to assaults in the aisles inside grocery stores and fender benders in the parking lots outside as two cars tried to pull into the last open space. There were fisticuffs over the last portable generator for sale at Home Depot (hurricanes always seemed to down power lines, which could mean days without electricity). Most memorable for me was when a grocery store manager announced there was no more toilet paper. I suppose the people who went to jail after the mini riot that ensued didn’t have to worry about a lack of Charmin for a while.

I also remember what it was like to respond to calls for service during outbreaks of various viruses, toxin scares (remember anthrax, anyone?), and other airborne pathogens. We did not have protective equipment beyond latex gloves when we waded into some dicey situations. The confounding problem was that we had no idea who was infectious or what items were contaminated at the scene. The public we had sworn to protect could be the very ones infecting us. And occasionally, one of them did it on purpose.

I’ll never forget the man I arrested for burglary who loudly proclaimed he was HIV positive, then bit off a chunk of flesh from inside his mouth and spat it at my face. Reflexes kicked in, and I managed to swing my ticket book holder up between us as a shield. I heard a soft splat against the metal before the clump oozed to the floor. I had successfully blocked his attempt, and added another charge against him, but no matter how hard I scrubbed or how much bleach I used, I could never get the bloodstain out. Later, when I became an instructor at the police academy, I displayed the ticket book holder for the recruits when we talked about biohazards on the job (I was assured by health officials that it had been sanitized and only the discoloration remained).

As a commander, I underwent critical incident management training. Every nerve tensed as I heard the WMD experts from other agencies refer to us as “blue canaries.” This meant that the police would be the first in at any disturbance, often without any hint that a pathogen could be involved. If it was something highly toxic, responding police would collapse, providing the first clue that something dangerous was in the air. Everyone else could then take appropriate precautions and establish a perimeter based on where the police had succumbed. I remember cursing under my breath and hearing my fellow commanders doing the same. We lobbied for better protective equipment, and succeeded in getting it for our officers, but that doesn’t account for the majority of unseen hazards we come across. There are the things that take days to show symptoms. Things we might take home to our families.

So how do we support our first responders? First, avoid creating mayhem and show extra patience with others. We are all in this together. Second, don’t let rumors guide you. What is it about impending emergencies that cause people to panic-hoard? I was talking with one of my neighbors yesterday (we stayed six feet apart) and he told me that he didn’t want to be a crazy hoarder, but because everyone else was, he felt pressured into stockpiling as well.

He shrugged. “If I don’t grab it now, there won’t be any when I run out, right?”

He had put his sanitized finger directly on the problem. As a society, we have something of a herd mentality. When we see everyone else gathering supplies, we figure we’d better do the same. Before long, necessities have dwindled on the shelves, creating an increased sense of urgency. Then even the most levelheaded among us are forced to scramble for the remaining scraps. We wait in line for hours, only to get inside to see empty shelves. Everyone’s nerves are frayed, and before you know it, formerly reasonable people are throwing punches over the last gallon of milk.

My view: Caution is prudent. Fear is the beginning of a dark path. Panic is the enemy.

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Isabella Maldonado

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