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April 08, 2020

Philadelphia police officers asked to wear cloth masks amid COVID-19 crisis

Staffing levels remain steady across the department, Commissioner Outlaw says

Police COVID-19
Police Philly Masks COVID-19 Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia police officers will wear cloth masks while on the job and interacting with the public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.

The Philadelphia Police Department has provided its 6,500 officers with cloth masks to be worn while on duty during the coronavirus pandemic, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday morning.

The department issued each officer a cloth mask to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, following broad recommendations that came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week. 

Questions and uncertainty have surrounded the police department's internal guidelines to promote safety both within the force and during interactions with the public.

Philadelphia officials have declined to release the number of officers who have tested positive for COVID-19, citing confidentiality concerns and a belief that these statistics are not essential for the public to know.

Staffing levels have not dropped off during the pandemic, Outlaw said. 

"Internally, I can assure you that we track not only the number of positives, but who's in quarantine," Outlaw said. But that information also is being withheld to prevent panic among the public and to discourage officers from calling in sick due to fear or paranoia. 

Pressure to learn more about the status of the virus within the department mounted this week following the death of 59-year-old Lt. James Walker, a veteran who served in the traffic district. Outlaw said the circumstances of Walker's coronavirus infection remain under investigation.

Many of the department's COVID-19 cases appear to have originated in communal spaces, Outlaw said. The department has stepped up efforts to disinfect spaces where the virus may have been present, including group settings and vehicles in which members of the public have been transported.

As an additional precaution, officers are now providing members of the public with a cloth mask during arrests or other interactions that require contact. Any calls to police should be handled outdoors, if possible, with people staying at least six feet from the officers. 

Some areas of the department may be more vulnerable than others, Outlaw said. The radio room holds as many as 43 people working together at the same time, including trainees. The department prioritized them for masks, but noted the challenge of maintaining adequate social distancing. 

Because of the elevated risks internally and externally, Outlaw said the department must "pick our battles" and determine when it's best for officers to engage the public.

"The question that I'm asking our leadershing to raise, and that our officers should ask, is whether this is the best use of resources?" Outlaw said. "A lot of this stuff is case by case and we'll continue to do it that way."

At this point, the department is not concerned that the number of positive coronavirus cases among officers is trending in a direction that would require a call for mutual aid from partnering law enforcement agencies.

Outlaw said the department is adjusting on the fly to a scenario that, in many ways, is counterintuitive to what police typically do — working in close quarters and in relation to the community.

As guidelines continue to take shape, the department plans to post more information about its COVID-19 response plan on the Philadelphia Police website.