Officers take on new challenges and new danger related to COVID-19

URBANA, Illinois – Like many people in 2020, Officer Michelle Kaeding has a new work routine.

Every morning after her patrol shift briefing, Kaeding loads some new equipment into her squad car – extra face masks, surgical gloves and hand sanitizer. She sprays the entire interior of the SUV with a special disinfectant. And then for good measure, she wipes down the more frequently touched areas.

At least a few officers and potentially some community members will be in and out of that vehicle throughout the day, and she wants to keep everyone safe from COVID-19 – including herself and her family.

“It has caused additional stressors outside of work,” Kaeding said. “Being the mother of a young son, it is very, very stressful for me to just come into work knowing there is a chance to be exposed and potentially expose it to him. That would be devastating to have to quarantine away from him.”

The global pandemic has affected just about every corner of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community, and the police department is no exception. The University of Illinois Police Department has continued operating 24 hours a day, but there have been some changes to reduce the chance of exposure.

For one thing, as many members of the department as possible are working from home. But for patrol officers who need to be physically present to keep the community safe, that is just not possible.

When officers need to meet with each other, they are convening those meetings outside when possible. Shared vehicles and equipment are disinfected regularly. Interior doors are left open to minimize contact points.

The very work of the department has changed as well. In the fall 2020 semester, UIPD officers were tasked with enforcing local public health ordinances, which included rules on keeping social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, maintaining social distance and wearing masks.

‘It’s just as scary for us as everybody else’

Officers were assigned to work “party patrol” shifts, which entailed responding to loud noise and party complaints. More often than not, officers found that campus community members were in compliance with public health mandates. But several large parties during the semester resulted in large fines for the party hosts and potentially university-related consequences as well. Some students were dismissed from the university as a result of their reckless actions.

Every time an officer responded to a complaint of a large party, they were putting themselves in harm’s way.

“Anytime we’re going to these party calls, we’re putting ourselves into these situations where there’s more than 10 people, which is what we’re telling people not to do,” said Officer Daniel Leake. “We do our best to get people away from that situation to talk to them and not go directly into it.”

But that does not make it any less stressful for the officer.

“My wife works at a hospital, so she’s dealing with this stuff every day,” Leake said. “I don’t want to bring it home and give it to her, and have her take it to the hospital. That can be very bad as well. … It’s just as scary for us as everybody else.”

New pandemic routines have meant less direct contact with community members as well. Officers are taking reports of crime over the phone when possible in non-emergency situations. And UIPD in March launched an online reporting form for community members who need to report less serious crimes, like theft and vandalism.

‘We will stand up and take the call’

Some crimes – especially emergencies – require police to respond in-person. One recent call in particular led to several officers contracting COVID-19 after they came into close contact with an arrestee who was sick.

Officer Alex Tran was one of the officers who responded to that call. He was lucky to not get sick himself, but he knows how close he came.

“We got word that a possible kidnapping had occurred, so we all had to be there. It’s all hands-on-deck to try to resolve that situation,” Tran said.

Fortunately, the incident was resolved without any further harm than what had already occurred. But the officers’ good deed did not go without consequences for their health.

“I was actually sitting in the same room with (the arrestee who was sick with COVID-19), but I somehow did not contract it,” Tran said. “Maybe it was luck, maybe it was because I was on the opposite side of the room. We were outside of six feet. I had my mask on the entire time.”

Tran was lucky, but several of his coworkers were not. It was an experience that shows how officers can be exposed any time they respond to a report of crime.

That won’t stop Tran from doing his job, though.

“We put our health and our wellness at risk,” Tran said. “But like any other police officer or first responder, we will stand up and take the call, and we will help the community out even if it does put us at risk.”