Three of Timothy Kozal’s police officers have tested positive for coronavirus. Three others have been quarantined. That’s half of the police force of Manistee, a small western Michigan town of about 6,000 people.
Kozal is the town’s police chief. He’s also the fire chief. But for the past few days, he’s been acting as a patrol officer every morning, from 7 to around 11 a.m., when he’s the only one available.
“I’m a working chief,” Kozal said. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 31 years. … I’m part of the team here. I’m all about trying to help out.”
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As the coronavirus pandemic depletes urban police departments in cities like New York and Detroit, little attention has been paid to their rural counterparts, where even a handful of positive cases could wallop an entire police force. The impact on rural police – which made up more than two-thirds of all local police departments in the country in 2016 – could be critical, as the pandemic seeps in to rural communities.
Small law enforcement agencies don’t have big budgets and detective divisions or special operations staff who can fill in for patrol officers, so they must make do with what they have.
For Kozal, this means having just one officer – including him – responding to calls for part of the day or night.
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“We’re still going to be responding to the calls and still have that exposure risk just like everybody else,” Kozal said.
But unlike big-city police, they simply can’t afford to lose more officers.
“It would cripple us completely,” said Sheriff Troy Wellman of Moody County, South Dakota.
Being in a rural area is a “blessing and a curse,” said Wellman, whose department patrols 550 square miles with a population of about 6,500. “We’re not overly populated. We do have distance. The other side of that is if it does hit us, it could potentially wipe us out.”
That’s the worst-case scenario for many police agencies.
Losing an entire police department would force community members to self-police and not follow the guidelines of county health departments, said Dwight Henninger, the police chief of Vail, Colorado, in Eagle County, one of several rural counties that lead the nation in per capita rates of confirmed cases outside New York state and Louisiana.
“This virus is affecting all portions of our society. In a small, rural community, we all interact with each other. … We know the person whose business is closed. We know the kids who are out of school. We know the hospital folks who work long hours,” said Henninger, who’s also the second vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “The police department is really the fabric of a small community in a lot of ways.”
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Shortage in masks, safety supplies is a problem
Like their urban counterparts, rural law enforcement agencies have struggled to find protective gear and disinfectants for their officers – a problem that can be exacerbated when departments don’t have the money and flexibility to find extra staffing.
In Manistee, the police department has only one N95 mask for each officer, so they make do with surgical masks, Kozal said.
In Moody County, one dispatcher made hand sanitizer at home using alcohol and aloe, Allen said.
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In Vail, officials had to rely on homemade masks, Henninger said. His town, a ski destination of about 5,500 people, is one of the first places in Colorado to have positive cases, which likely originated from tourists. At one point, Henninger lost about 20 percent of his staff of 65 officers, dispatchers and civilian employees, although most have since returned to work.
The small police department in Blakely, Georgia, with a population of less than 5,000, also had to rely on donated masks, said Chief Will Caudill.
Caudill just came back to work after recovering from coronavirus. So far, he’s the only one in his department of 20 who has tested positive.
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Crime rates in many police departments have plummeted as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Americans off the streets. But some, including rural agencies, have seen a rise in domestic disturbances or violence.
The pandemic also has fundamentally changed policing in both urban and rural areas. Small police departments, like their urban counterparts, have limited their interactions with the public, foregoing minor infractions and arresting only when they absolutely need to.
In Marfa, Texas, a tiny desert town of less than 2,000 not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, police officers have stopped pulling people over for minor traffic stops. Warrants for misdemeanor crimes will be pursued when things return to normal, said Police Chief Estevan Marquez.
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Marquez is already on call 24 hours a day, every day. He has only four officers, and he can’t afford to lose even one.
Sheriff Alan Malone, of Perry County in Indiana, population 19,000, said deputies have started resolving service calls over the phone when they can, instead of showing up at people’s houses.
“The last thing we want to do is to have deputies get it. It’s just a domino effect, how bad it can be in a small agency,” Malone said.
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Malone has only 10 full-time deputies. The department has reserve officers, and the Indiana State Police can help if needed, he said. So far, no one has tested positive or had to be quarantined. If that were to happen, it would mean scheduling nightmares and long hours.
“But also, these officers have to go home to their families,” Malone said.
Kozal, the police chief in Manistee, said officers from the Michigan State Police and other neighboring agencies have helped his department with service calls.
Manistee is only four hours away from two international airports – one in Detroit and one in Chicago – cities with thousands of coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths. Kozal said it’s only a matter of time before the town is also besieged.
“You sort of look at what the big cities are going to have and know that you’re probably going to wind up anticipating it sometime thereafter,” he said. “You hope you don’t, but people seem to feel they’re invincible.”
Manistee County has nine confirmed cases as of Thursday.
“For me, that’s significant,” Kozal said. “How did this happen?”
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