Safety concerns for ill-equipped Buffalo cops

Two Buffalo police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, about 10 others are isolating themselves, and yet more are working without protective gear such as face masks to reduce the chances they’ll become infected with the virus, says John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. 

The shortage of working police cars, paired with the department’s coronavirus sick time policy, is putting more officers at risk, he said.

Evans and his union are presently the prime source of information on the health of city police officers because the Brown administration is not releasing details, unlike other law enforcement agencies such as the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. For example, the Sheriff’s Office has regularly provided updates, revealing, for example, that two deputies from the downtown Holding Center have tested positive and more than a dozen others are self-isolating.

Evans said a car partner for one of the officers who tested positive remains on the job, despite their prolonged exposure. On top of that, the two officers who tested positive and a third who is awaiting test results all worked during a double-up shift – when the day and night shifts overlap for several hours. All work in the C District, which covers the East Side.

“Everybody was exposed to these guys,” Evans told Investigative Post. “There’s a chance that, if it’s aggressive as it seems, there might be a few more guys out there who have it,  or worse, who have it and aren’t showing symptoms.” 

The department has provided hand sanitizer to officers for personal use and as a solution to clean patrol car interiors, including steering wheels.  

That’s the only type of protective material widely available to all officers, Evans said. He added that the department doesn’t have adequate protective gear like masks, gloves and suits for those who are patrolling every day, despite the risks.

“It’s inherent to the job,” Evans said. “You’re exposed to anything that’s out there. It’s something we have to contend with moving forward.” 

Some units, like housing, homicide and neighborhood engagement, were able to secure N-95 masks. Evans said Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood told him the department’s supply had run dry and it was turning to other sources, including the National Guard.

“I don’t think anyone was [prepared],” Evans added. 

Captain Jeff Rinaldo told Investigative Post the department can’t stockpile items like masks because they expire, and that it’s been “adjusting resources.” 

Evans is concerned that the department’s sick leave policy – which requires officers to prove they contracted the coronavirus on the job to qualify for benefits – may prompt  officers to work even if they’re showing symptoms. 

None of the officers who have been tested know if they’ve been in contact with carriers, Evans said. All began exhibiting symptoms including a fever and cough on March 19 and 20.

The Erie County Health Department is responsible for notifying anyone who may have had contact with the officers who tested positive. While they cannot talk about individual cases, Kara Kane, a Health Department’s spokesperson, said generally, the county has been recommending the quarantining of household members and other close contacts of those with positive results.

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To reduce contact with possible carriers, some departments are limiting the type of calls they’re responding to. The Erie and Niagara County Sheriff Departments have announced deputies may not respond in person to low-priority calls, which include nonviolent issues including loud music complaints and neighbor disputes. 

These so-called low priority calls made up almost 62 percent of all 911 calls in the city during the last half of February, according to data analyzed by Investigative Post.

Buffalo police are still responding to these calls, but have been instructed to encourage anyone inside a house or apartment to come outside to talk, if it is “reasonable and feasible.”  

“We’re taking it day-by-day,” Rinaldo said. “At the end of the day, first responders have to show up to work and get the job done.”