Oral History: Interview with Anonymous Peace Officer #2


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Oral History: Interview with Anonymous Peace Officer #2

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James Rayroux 0:01
My name is James Rayroux, and I'm a graduate student in global history at Arizona State University, and I'm working as a curation intern with the "Journal of the Plague Year" COVID-19 archive. Today is March 21, 2021, and it's just after 8:12pm or 2012 hours here in Arizona. I'm speaking with a narrator who wishes to contribute to the COVID-19, archive anonymously. Sir, I first want to thank you for speaking with me and contributing to this COVID-19 archive. Do you consent to having this interview recorded, transcribed, and immediately posted to the "Journal of the Plague Year" COVID-19 archive, where it will be made accessible to the public?

Anonymous Officer 0:43
Yes, I do.

JR 0:44
Thank you again for agreeing to speak with me and making time for this interview. In lieu of your name, or location, can you provide a summary of your background and professional experience in law enforcement?

AO 1:01
Sure, I've been sworn law enforcement for almost 23 years in a state in the Rocky Mountain region. I've worked both for municipal and state government, and I work for small to medium sized agency now about 35 sworn officers. I'm a military veteran, I was US Navy prior to my time prior to going to the police academy, and I worked a variety assignments from patrol to drug and alcohol enforcement, auto theft Task Force, Joint Terrorism Task Force, supervision, criminal investigations, and command.

JR 1:44
During that time what are some of your most prominent or important achievements within the law enforcement profession?

AO 1:54
You know, I think that this profession, namely, is typically not about the individual. I would probably point towards successes in the community and successful team building and successful growth of individuals into the business. I think one of my most proud achievements I think, something I'm tremendously, I feel tremendously accomplished for is somehow I failed to convince my son to be a firefighter, and he was just sworn in at another municipality in the same state as a sworn law enforcement officer. So while I have failed him and trying to convince him to do literally anything else, I'm also extremely proud and accomplished that I have raised my son into a similar professional lineage, and he's elected to take the oath to protect his community, as well.

JR 2:57
What are your current roles or assignments within your organization?

AO 3:04
I'm currently assigned as a patrol supervisor, a watch commander. I supervise a shift of a number of police officers and currently working day shift. So in those roles, I'm essentially the emergency manager for our smaller community, supervise police response to emergencies, meet with the public, interact with command staff, meet with public stakeholders, and then, essentially, a customer service rep who happens to be a sworn law enforcement agent.

JR 3:37
When and how did you learn about the SARS-CoV-2 virus in early 2020, and what were some of the first conversations you remember having about it at work?

AO 3:51
So COVID became on the tip of everybody's tongue probably in early January. And previously, in the end of 2019, it was somebody else's problem. It was, it was a China problem, it was a Wu Han problem, specifically. It was, it was out of sight out of mind. And, of course, you'll know this about law enforcement, there's only two kinds of problems in law enforcement, those being "my problem," and "not my problem." And during the first part of 2020, it wasn't our problem. There was a limited amount of cases in the US, they trickled in. Most of what we understood about the virus that causes COVID-19 was based on the media, was based on, you know, what you might catch a snippet of on NPR on Fox News, which has no news about foxes, I might add, and essentially, just the snippets we would get on the media and I don't remember having official tangential conversations about the COVID-19 virus in a strategic way, until probably February. A lot of those initial conversations, you know, as, as trained observers and trained investigators, I know many, many law enforcement officers who don't immediately give a lot of trust or credence to things their government tells them. So, for the first little while, it was kind of an attitude of scrutiny, one of a lack of credibility. We weren't really sure whether this was hype and whether there was really any risk, and there was a lot of conversations about the corollary between, you know, the standard flu and other illnesses that killed just as many if not more people, and there was a lot of disagreement about their trajectory, and the volume, and the scope, and really how this thing was going to manifest.

JR 6:04
How did your agency first deal with the COVID-9 pandemic in an official way?

AO 6:12
The first steps that were taken initially, mostly just surrounded, strategic outward facing changes to how we did business on the street, basic social distancing, wash your hands, don't touch your face, basically just mimicked CDC advice. You know, be careful more to come. Very low level, very basic, no real operational changes, no testing, no recommendations for symptoms that was, you know, under the umbrella of "flatten the curve," keep yourself healthy sort of jargon, that was shared from both the government and from the administration of our, our small community downwards towards the police department and other, other trades in the region.

JR 7:13
What did your first pandemic briefing or roll call look and feel like after those changes were made? Where you and your squad entirely in masks for that first time, or was that yet to come?

AO 7:29
When the government of our state first mandated masks, there was specific legislation that excluded law enforcement. It was quickly decided that masks were recommended, but were not required initially. So there was this sort of juxtaposition and feeling out period in our community where not a lot of people wore masks. It was recommended. You were supposed to wear them when you were outside, you were supposed to wear them, you know, when you were in contact with others. The science hadn't really been affirmed. There weren't a lot of links to credible research yet. And, of course, a pandemic of this nature has never been experienced or dealt with for generations previous to this. And so, you know, I'm 100% cofident telling you that literally everyone was just winging it, and that was immediately apparent in that first briefing where we discussed what we were going to do. Still scrutiny, still somewhat lack of credibility, lots of, lots of eye rolling with a few critical and strategic thinkers, you know, raising, you know, what would later be the first semblance of some alarm, saying, "Hey, you know, maybe, maybe this is going to be a big deal. Maybe we haven't experienced anything like this before, we ought to be as careful as possible."

JR 9:03
How did your agency's policies and procedures change over time after that initial effort?

AO 9:13
So the, you know, the, the tide came in, in a big way very quickly. And as you'll remember, as the COVID-19 virus, sort of sieged Italy and New York and the Eastern Seaboard, everybody started paying attention in a big way. And we're, you know, a couple 1000 miles from there, but local and state governments started reacting very, very quickly. Masks were mandated for all persons in contact with the public. A scramble was afoot to obtain PPE [personal protective equipment], which supply chains being, you know, any resemblance of the way they were in 2019, there was no problem. You just got on Uline or Amazon or, you know, you know, whoever your main commercial supplier was, and you ordered them by the skid and PPE was readily available and there was no reason to hoard it. But all of a sudden, there weren't any. There wasn't any, the supply chains were just curb-stomped into this sort of perpetual waiting period where nobody was sure what they were going to need, and everybody thought that N-95 respirators were the new hotness, and everyone had to have some from car dealers to people working the drive thru to baristas to, you know, the guy doing my front end alignment. So all of a sudden, we were trying to balance what was practically happening on the street, what our day-to-day call volume looked like, and what we were really supposed to do with the PPE we had knowing that our resupply was probably distant. And when we wove all that together and put all that minutia in a pot and stirred it up, what we came up with was pretty much this overwhelming sense of nobody knowing anything that was reliable. And it was anybody's best guess how long this was going to last and what we're going to need. That was echoed among our local hazmat [Hazardous Materials responders], our local health departments, our local health organizations. Nobody had any PPE to give us, nobody knew how long it was going to last, and nobody could have any real recommendations except for this sort of parroted, you know, don't touch your face, wash your hands, wear a mask in contact with everybody. Once masks were required, we had some pretty significant changes to the way that we did business in the community. You know, as a forward facing law enforcement agency, we contact, you know, one officer might contact 10s of people every day, sometimes might make 15 or 20 contacts before, you know, the afternoon's said, and by doing so, what we know now to weave a fabric of a contact trace that is essentially impossible. I mean, we remove Degrees of Separation all day long just by talking to people. And none of that technology and contact tracing and science had really entered the social jargon. But we were out there just trying to be as careful as possible, and it wasn't until probably...probably late March is when you know rivers turned to blood and the sky fell as far as the government was concerned. And it was then that definitive, codified changes were made to procedure where there was a moratorium put on traffic enforcement and all proactive street contacts, except for egregious emergency violations. We didn't make traffic stops for weeks. There was a moratorium immediately placed on warrant arrests and on booking people at the jail because, having a potential infectious patient in your vehicle, nobody knew what the consequences of that were or how to decon [decontaminate] it. So we didn't arrest anybody. If it was a crime of violence, or a crime against a person with a victim, we would screen it at the jail first. Everybody warned N-95 mask, and we would transport them as quickly and safely as possible. If it was a warrant for anything nonviolent, warrant for bench warrants, and courts and anything, we just let them go. Even if somebody told us that they had COVID symptoms, or were COVID positive, there was still no viable testing in the system, and no way to confirm or deny that those statements were true so we didn't book them. So many suspects in cases either went uncontacted, cases were dismissed, or the warrants were skipped just because the precautions weren't in place yet, and the agency and all the businesses and other agencies we worked in the region were trying to just to stay healthy. Proactivity probably took a, I think, I would call a permanent shift. I have not seen a resurgence of practice enforcement and the likes of which I might like. Cops just stopped doing business the way that they used to, and some of the badges we'd wear and some of the honor that we took in protecting the community came from making contacts: suspicious vehicle, suspicious people, you know, local transients, patrolling, you know, bike racks and stealing cars and stealing bikes and harassing people and it, it turned into kind of this proactive wasteland where law enforcement was worried about exposing themselves. They were worried about exposing each other. They were worried about exposing their families. And they were worried that if they happen to make a contact, they might expose the next people, the next 10 or 15 people that they talked to that day. So the only way to eliminate that was just to stop doing it. So by eliminating, you know, the patient zero style traffic stops, we hoped to have an impact on that, and flatten our own curves by just not talking to anybody unless it was an emergency.

JR 15:38
Do you remember the first call or the first contact that you went on where you and the public were both wearing masks?

AO 15:51
I don't remember it specifically. But I remember a handful of contacts that were made in right around March when, you know, when I said that when the king tide came in with news and with panic and fear. And I remember a handful where nobody really was sure what to do. Everybody was, had this sort of weaponized social distance, and people would walk the other direction when you tried to talk to him, and we hadn't mastered the, you know, the little elbow bump or the little nod, and so nobody could figure out how to talk to one another, and there was quite a few instances of the COVID card being played where people just simply didn't want to talk to the police. So they, they feigned fear and panic for exposure and wouldn't come out of their homes and open their car doors or their windows. And then shortly thereafter, it became socially stigmatic to participate in the fear and panic. And if law enforcement didn't wear masks, we sort of became this pariah immediately. So it was, it was optional for a very short period of time, but then very, very quickly, virtually every single contact we made had to have a mask on, of course, which, you know, brings with it all the problems associated with not being able to see somebody's face. It's hard to hear, it's hard to talk on the radio. It's hard to smell intoxicants, you know, it just added sort of this, it was basically like dimming the focus one click on your whole world by having to cover your face. But, you know, at that point, some of the science was starting to become more consistent and more published, and every, most everybody at that point was pretty convinced that at least when in contact with the public and the unknown, that some sort of mask was viable and necessary.

JR 17:50
In Western society, handshaking has long been a very important social event. And that's obviously gone by the wayside with the general public since the pandemic began. In lieu of having that physical contact to make direct human connections, how have you tried to establish rapport with the public when you do have to contact them?

AO 18:21
It's been weird. You know, handshakes have been sort of the status quo of a show of respect and humility for so many years. I mean, you know, you hold your hand out, it's almost instinctual. It's almost primordial. You know, in this culture in Western culture, someone holds your hand out, and you don't take it, like, them's are fighting actions, right? So it's, it was weird. We had to figure out ways to break the ice, we had to figure out ways to do that acknowledgement, and I'll answer it two ways. The first way was we had to figure out how to communicate with people even though they couldn't really see our faces, and there could be no sort of context to breaking sign of respect, like the handshake. So you know, you come up with this weird elbow bump, or you give the little, you know, the little nod that one bro gives to another across the urinal, and you find out ways to just break the ice with people. And the second challenge that we experienced was that we could no longer show those signs of respect to one another in view of the public. So if one cop was touching another, or, you know, giving a little handshake or playing grab ass, or high five, or even just a fist bump, all of a sudden, we were cast out, right? All of a sudden, those little, that that lack of social distancing became this socially virtuous thing to exploit and to ridicule, and so we had to be exceptionally careful in public even though within shifts, we considered our shifts to be close contact circles. I mean, any sworn law enforcement officer working during the COVID shutdown very likely saw their shift mates more than they saw their blood families. And so there was just no way to socially distance internally at work, because of the, just close knit manner in which the job is done and the proximity we had to one another throughout the day. Yet in public, you know, we're in our own cars we're socially distanced, we got to have masks on, you better boil yourself between each contact, and you got to wear booties and a Tyvek suit and touch everybody with a little wand. And in the mix, I feel like our isolationism increased, and I feel like our bonds of society from a law enforcement perspective became even more tenuous. So, you know, one of the things I adopted was I started using my first name with everybody. I stopped using rank, I stopped using identifiers. I just told him who I was. I asked them for their first name, I use my first name, I tried to break it down. And I would always, you know, have these little catch conversations I do and I introduced everybody, and just try to acknowledge that this is a new time and, you know, you hear in the media and you see it a lot. And in every, every, you know, corporation, commercial for six months, it was, "in these trying times." So, that sort of became the catchphrase like, "Hey, in these challenging times, things are different. Here's the business I'm here to do. My name is so-and-so. We're trying to keep the peace, how can we be helpful?" And we interacted with all kinds of people. Some people thought it was a hoax. Plenty of, plenty of sovereign citizen scam-demick, plan-demick jargon being thrown our way. And then on the other side of that spectrum, were extremely scared, extremely isolated...people wouldn't come out of their houses, people were afraid to take a Grubhub delivery. People were, you know, boiling their utensils. And somewhere in the middle, law enforcement just kind of figured out a way to break the ice, and I think it's, I think it's going to be permanently different. And I can tell you that because the day before yesterday, I was on a burglary call where I talked to the informant. Without even thinking, I reached my hand out to shake his hand because he told me his name. He said, "Hey, thanks for coming. I'm so and so." And without even thinking about it, my mammal brain shot my hand out in a greeting. And it took him about five seconds of staring at me before I figured out that we just don't do that anymore. And it's super weird, but we, we're working around it.

JR 22:51
What do you miss most about your job or your daily work duties from 2019?

AO 23:02
You know, I don't know if this is going to be directly related to the pandemic. I think that in 2019, we were dealing with a community that understood what the rules were. Everything was, you know, we call it "pre-COVID," we call it "olden days," I don't know if we're ever going to return to those times, but cops are out there doing business in the community, and we were fighting crime and protecting people. And we were making this self sacrifice and serving our community and being forward facing and just eatin' meat and just leaning in just to get business done. And we did it no way that served our customer and served our client base. And I don't know any law enforcement officer who's been on the job for more than 10 minutes who doesn't do this because they love the community they work, or they love the service that they provide, or the people they protect. And I think we've permanently changed the way that law enforcement officers are viewed by their communities. I think we've done, and I say "we," I mean we as a culture, good, bad, or indifferent, have done irrevocable damage to the reputation of law enforcers in our community and the public trust that they must hold in order to be successful. And then all of a sudden, the communities "why nots" became really, really strong. And cops had to start making excuses really quickly about why we weren't the bad cops. And why we weren't doing this to violate your civil rights. And why we're just, we're just out there trying to do the job and just trying to, you know, serve policy and serve the constitution and it might not be about you and your mask. And I feel like this stigma, the social stigma became leveraged against law enforcement in a really big way without any real underlying facts. No one, you know, it just became this sort of socially virtuous stigmatic status to hate the cops, whether it was for their efforts to preserve the public peace in the pandemic, or whether it was your interpretation of their worth based on events taking place in the national landscape. It became cliche to hate the cops. And I think I miss, I missed the real relationships we had in 2019 that were based on sort of a shared respect, and a common understanding and actual virtues of character and integrity. And now, you know, it's, it's an uphill climb. We're sort of this Sisyphussian rock-pushing force, just always trying to push this public opinion and public trust rock up the hill only to, you know, take two steps back, and I miss that quite a bit.

JR 26:15
What do you wish that the public understood about law enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic?

AO 26:27
I think if I could choose one thing, I wish that the public understood that nothing changed in the way that law enforcement supports and loves and wants to collaborate with the community. During the pandemic, law enforcement was shined in three or four different colored lenses varying from, you know, rosy to catastrophic, and most police officers on the street during the pandemic, were humans just trying to figure out how to navigate their space and provide for their families, and to continue to protect the public and somehow navigate shark infested waters of this, the sudden unknown COVID-19 enemy. And it was a huge struggle, you know, policy was changing on the daily. Science and procedure was being released several times a day at, you know, at its busiest, and most law enforcement were just caught in the wake of this rapidly changing information, hugely volatile work environment, and trying to keep themselves and their families healthy while still being effective. I wish the public knew how much most law enforcement officers hate racism and prejudice and corruption. I wish they knew that nobody hates dirty cops more than we do. And that virtually all the law enforcement officers they contact on the daily are still doing the job because they've considered the risks to their lives and their risks to their health and the risk to their family's health, and are still willing to suit up every morning or every night, and put body armor on, and put 30 pounds of gear on, and go out there and risk their health and safety to protect our community, and mostly people they don't even know and have never met. And I think that's what's really at stake when the rhetoric gets really loud and the disinformation gets really deep. And the panic and the fear really starts to grab older people is they start to lash out against the government as a whole and what they don't understand in, you know, in some way is that that uniform represents just another member of their same community who is trying to stand between the two entities and make good decisions, and protect the constitution and uphold the peace and protect the, you know, the victims and protect, you know, the weak from the oppression and you know, all the things we stand for. But all those cops out there are just the same community members. Some of them don't have any toilet paper at home. Some of them couldn't buy peanut butter. Some of them didn't have fresh food for weeks because they couldn't go to the grocery store because of their shifts. So it wasn't that there was this divide. It wasn't that there's this this pantheon of law enforcement officers who were out there trying to screw everyone, it was members of the very same community who just happened to put that uniform on by choice to save it and protect the community despite the fact that there was this, you know, this crazy pandemic and all the fear and panic going on at the same time.

JR 29:56
Knowing that I intended to speak with you about law enforcement and your experience in that profession during this pandemic, what, perhaps, was one of the questions that you hoped to answer or that I didn't ask?

AO 30:18
One of the things I was thinking about talking about was that, for the first several weeks, I would say maybe even two months, there was no viable testing for any first responders in our region. So if one of my guys or gals was symptomatic, they simply had to be quarantined, and there was no way to test. We begged and borrowed and pled, and, you know, by hook or by crook, tried to figure out how to make a relationship with a clinical entity so that we could protect our people and keep them in place and keep them effective and keep them assigned on the street. What happened was any flu-like symptoms were just viewed as COVID quarantine, and so there was a couple of days there where I almost didn't have an emergency dispatch center because I didn't have anybody to work. There was a couple of days where we were hemorrhaging overtime money paying the cops that were healthy to cover the cops that were not because we couldn't get them tested. It took quite a while until we had a viable, and until the turnaround was fast enough that it was sustainable to test people. Because if the turnaround was 10 days, and the quarantine was 14 days, and almost was you know, half a dozen, six of another, you were gonna stay home anyway. So until the testing was fast enough and efficient enough, we burned a lot of time, and a lot of cops sat at home for 14 days under quarantine who maybe didn't mean to, and there was no way to test them. Once testing was viable, and available, I feel like we did a better job of that. But at the beginning, there were several of us who were pretty sure we had contracted the virus and suffered its effects as early as January or February, a ton of us were sick in January and February and early March before, way before viable testing was available in our communities. And that was, that was a challenging and an alarming period of time where even my first responders we just didn't know. And if you weren't admitted to the ER, if you weren't seen clinically, and if you didn't have co-morbidities or other risk categories, you just didn't get tested because the resources didn't exist. And why would we waste a test on a first responder who can just quarantine for two weeks and be otherwise healthy when we need to use it on, you know, the septuagenarian co-morbid patient who's, you know, got 15 different ailments, and I understand that math. But it was pretty frustrating to just have to hemorrhage overtime money and just suffer and figure out how to cover shifts and work 16, 18 hours in a row because there just wasn't anybody else.

JR 33:23
I am incredibly grateful for your time and for sharing your expertise and your thoughts with us. Thank you so much.

AO 33:31
You're very welcome, sir. Thank you for the opportunity.

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This item was submitted on March 23, 2021 by James Rayroux using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”:

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