‘We Can’t Shelter in Place’: Commissioner Gross Says Police Will Not Run from the Fight

The Boston Police Department (BPD) has a tremendous legacy and history of working through just about every situation – from terrorist bombings in 2013 to urban rioting in the 1960s – but there are no officers still on the rolls that have worked through a pandemic.

For the BPD, Commissioner William Gross said they are entering uncharted territory as a police force – responding to regular criminal activity and COVID-19 situations as well, while also trying to protect the officers and staff in the department so as to be able to keep operating full-force.

Officers and family members of Officer Omar Borges-who is assigned to the citywide drug unit-gathered last week to celebrate his touch-and-go recovery from COVID-19.
Commissioner William Gross said it was a victory for everyone during an uncharted time for police officers.

Bottom line, they will not run from the fight, he said.

“We haven’t gone through anything like this since 1918 in terms of working in an environment where there’s a pandemic,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “We have had no delays of terms in service during this pandemic. The officers have been performing exceptionally…It’s not joke though. I think the morale is great and work ethic is great, but certainly there is a concern out there about how this virus can affect you. When you’re getting updated and getting information on this, there are so many opinions it can be confusing. But we can’t run from it. We have to work through it.”

Gross’s message to the public is that the officers are filling gaps wherever possible in helping deliver food and in supporting the schools, while also fighting crime, taking guns off the streets and protecting older adults from a rising amount of scams and targeted crime.

The work has not stopped, he said, even as officers are getting sick, and even having Jamaica Plain Officer Jose Fontanez pass away from COVID-19 two weeks ago.

“We can’t shelter in place,” he said. “Not only do we have to respond to calls for service that report criminal activity, but also we have to respond to calls for mental health issues and we cannot forget our unhoused population and those people with substance abuse disorders. The first responders fighting through this cannot shelter in place.”

COVID-19 has hit the department in several ways.

On Tuesday, Gross said they had 81 sworn officers and civilians in the department who have tested positive for the disease, and at the moment there are 46 still out fighting COVID. However, several others have recovered and returned to work.

“We have people that are so committed  – they go through COVID and heal and get back to work because they know it will take everyone to defeat this disease,” he said. “That’s inspiring.”

One of those inspirations was Officer Omar Borges, who works the citywide drug unit, who recovered from a very serious case of COVID-19 last week. In a very emotional moment, he was reunited with his family and fellow officers outside Beth Israel Hospital. It was a victory, said Gross.

“He almost died, he really almost died,” said Gross. “For him to fight through that, to be there with his friends, family and the medical staff, it was a victory for everyone. It shows everyone to never give up…It sends a great message to do everything we can to remain healthy and even if you’re in the hospital battling this disease, you can come out of it.”

At the same time, they remember Officer Fontanez who did not win his battle with COVID-19, and that’s a reminder for officers to be safe and to do things to help them in the field.

Gross said at the outset of the response, Mayor Martin Walsh met with the Police Command Staff, Boston EMS and Boston Fire to review all of the guidelines and protocols and systems recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That resulted in two videos put out to those in the field on how to approach many situations, and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they would need.

Gross said officers now report to calls in masks, and are advised to wear them when off-duty as well when they cannot socially distance themselves. Having a mask on, though, can present a problem when trying to communicate with others in critical situations.

“It’s very much kind of standard for us,” he said. “Every call we go to now, we have out masks on and make sure everybody is clearly communicating. It’s tough to talk though the masks and people cannot always hear you.”

There are a lot of precautions also taken on calls. Police officers are one group that is discreetly given the addresses of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 so they can be aware of that if they are called to such an address. The information doesn’t go out over the police radio, and no names are attached to the warning.

Meanwhile, they’ve also brought out an old practice known as ‘Call Screening.’ If someone calls 9-1-1 and only needs a police report for the matter – not a response – calltakers can do the report over the phone. It’s something that used to be done years ago, and was brought back to limit unnecessary interactions in person. That has been one change in response, and has been working successfully so far.

Gross said another thing the public can do is to wear a mask when officers show up at a home, and also be as forthcoming and honest as possible with the 9-1-1 operators. Give good information, and if one is sick with COVID-19, let responding officers know so they can be prepared to safely offer services.

The Commissioner concluded by expressing his thanks to all of the officers and civilians in the department – as well as first responders in the Fire Department and Boston EMS. He also had a heartfelt thank you to the health care workers – who the Boston Police and other first responders thanked with a rolling rally two weeks ago.

“We know what it is to bust your butt working and get no thanks for it,” he said. “This was a sincere thank you to them. Like us, they cannot shelter in place…It was a public display to say thank you.”

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