Police departments across the nation are beginning to tailor their responses to arrests and treatment of alleged criminals in an attempt to keep the individuals – and themselves – healthy amid new coronavirus concerns.
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As of noon Wednesday, at least 7,324 people have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide, with New York and Washington topping the charts for the most reported cases.
While some law enforcement agencies have taken a lighthearted approach, at least on social media, others are undeniably buckling down.
New York City’s police department, the largest police force in the nation, is changing the way it handles the processing of people who are displaying “flu-like symptoms” around the time of their arrests, Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a recent press conference.
“Anyone who is arrested and has flu-like symptoms will not be taken to a precinct, will not be taken to central booking. There will be a specific methodology limiting their contact with our first responders and using a video conference system to immediately provide for the workings of the criminal justice system,” the Big Apple mayor said, noting that first responders would be trained in how to handle such situations.
As of Wednesday morning, 1,339 COVID-19 cases had been reported in the city, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Meanwhile, the NYPD has told its members they can still go to work even if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.
“They just need to take some extra precautions,” the department told its members in an “administrative bulletin.” “Those important precautions include monitoring their own health and taking all cautionary steps including distancing, hand washing, avoiding touching eyes and face and utilizing hand sanitizer in the workplace.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced his office would decline to prosecute certain low-level offenses in the interest of maintaining public health and safety.
Other local district attorneys, such as Staten Island, New York, DA Michael McMahon, have spoken out against Gonzalez’s decision.
“My office remains fully committed to prosecuting those who commit crime and working together with our partners in the NYPD in order keep our communities safe,” he said in a statement provided to FOX Business. “We will not turn on our backs on the victims of crime now by adopting misguided policies which would put the public at risk and only lead to an increase in overall crime."
‘GET OUT OF JAIL’ CARD
De Blasio also said during the recent press conference his Office of Criminal Justice and the NYPD are evaluating the number of inmates in the city’s Corrections Department custody, with an emphasis on “the number of people in our jail system who might be particularly high risk in terms of vulnerability to the virus and another category of people, those who are incarcerated but are at low risk of re-offending.”
The agencies were working on Tuesday to determine whether any of those groups of inmates should be released, and no update had been provided at the time of this report’s publication.
Some big-name inmates are hoping to use the pandemic effectively as a “get out of jail" card, arguing that it’s not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars.
Among those pleading for compassionate release or home detention are the former head of the Cali drug cartel, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen, Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and dozens of inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island, part of a jail system that lost an employee to the virus this week.
The 81-year-old Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of investors in a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme, had asked just last month to be released early in light of his terminal kidney disease. Now his attorney is calling on all at-risk federal prisoners to be released for their own safety because of the coronavirus.
“The federal prison system has consistently shown an inability to respond to major crises,” Madoff attorney Brandon Sample told The Associated Press. “My concerns are even more amplified for prisoners at federal medical centers and those who are aged.”
New York City’s Board of Correction called for officials to “remove from jail all people at higher risk from COVID-19 infection; and… rapidly decrease the jail population,” according to a press release on the matter.
The board said it considers inmates “at higher risk” if they’re over 50 or have underlying health conditions. It also called for the release of people detained “for administrative reasons,” such as parole violations, and those serving sentences of a year or less.
But the city’s Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen slammed the board’s proposal as “asinine” and “beyond irresponsible.”
“It’s very sad that we have to remind the Board of Correction that their mandate, per the city’s Charter, is to advocate for the welfare of everyone in the Correction Department, not just the inmates,” Husamadeen said. ”Instead of recklessly letting inmates out, call for the city to ramp up its efforts to bring in more masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and other vital supplies.”
Meanwhile in Florida, the Miami Police Department has also taken precautionary measures to “minimize contact as much as possible” as a way to mitigate potential COVID-19 spread.
Department spokesperson Kiara Delva said in a statement provided to FOX Business the department is encouraging residents to file certain non-emergency complaints, such as property crimes, either online or over the phone.
“At the same time, we would like to ensure our residents that we will continue to handle our duties and responsibilities as their public servant,” Delva said. “Our department is robust & our officers will continue to respond to calls for service where there’s a need for police presence, including ALL emergencies, disturbances, etc.”
At least 217 cases had been reported in Florida as of 8 a.m. EST Wednesday, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center reported.
The Los Angeles Police Department closed its “front desks and walk-up service” for all geographic offices, effective Wednesday, according to a press release provided to FOX Business.
“Instead of going to your local area station, we are asking the public to use unique email addresses assigned to each of our 21 area front desks,” the release states. “Those emails will be monitored 24/7 and routed to the proper channels.”
The LAPD is also temporarily re-assigning half of its detective workforce to uniformed patrol assignments as a way to ensure “the safety of the residents and any store operators that may be dealing with very large crowds.”
At least 718 cases had been reported in California as of 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center.
In a different part of the state, San Francisco officials on Monday issued a shelter-in-place order for the Bay Area’s 7 million residents, requiring that they stay inside and venture out only for food, medicine or exercise for three weeks.
At least 112 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported in Pennsylvania as of 1 p.m. Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said during a press conference Wednesday the department has “temporarily updated our protocols in light of the public health crisis we now face.”
“The department is not turning a blind eye to crime,” she said, according to video posted by FOX29 Philadelphia. “We will continue to enforce all laws, however people who commit certain non-violent offenses will be detained and arrested at the scene. When the person’s identity is confirmed they will be released with a warrant issued for them to come in later for processing.”
Officers at the scene will use their discretion, with the help of a supervisor, to determine if the person is a threat or if he or she can be released until a later date, Outlaw said.
The department will also be reassigning officers from plain-clothes units to patrol posts as a way to increase police visibility and deter crimes, she said.
She added that the Philadelphia PD will be temporarily suspending or modifying certain offices and programs within the department, such as some kinds of in-service training, and handling certain types of police reports by phone “thereby reducing unnecessary up-close, in-person contact.”
“When we are on the other side of this health crisis we will return back to normal operations.”
FOX News’ Marta Dhanis and Bryan Llenas, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This is a developing news story. Please check back for updates.