With over 15 years of experience with the Charlottesville Police Department, Sgt. Bradley Pleasants thought he had seen it all. That is, until COVID-19 came along. He recently returned from paternity leave to a brand new world where it seemed like all the experience that had informed his work was somehow no longer valid. “I was used to a world where I could pretty much predict what might happen on given days, whether it was how a warm day might bring more activity, or how a Friday night might be busier than others. These days, it doesn’t matter if it is Friday or Tuesday. Every day is the same, and no one is outside."
The reality for Sgt. Pleasants and the entire department is that nothing is the same.
In a world where the unknowns of a job have always outweighed the knowns, these days it’s not even close. According to Sgt. Jake Via, “On a normal day before this crisis hit, my officers would go to calls, and they often had no idea what they might encounter. Did someone have a weapon? They were always assessing the situation from a safety perspective. Now with this virus, there is always something they can’t see, and that adds layers and layers of unknowns. Is someone at the location we are headed to infected? Do they even know whether they are infected?”
These days in police work, as is true of nearly all professions, the daily routine is anything but routine. Each day includes updates on the virus. Every roll call is preceded by a temperature check. Every call, as long as it is feasible, is done with PPE. Every shift that involves a vehicle transition ends with a thorough decontamination process. Officers are making every effort to solve issues remotely that may not need an in-person response. Any possible contamination must be reported up the chain and may result in a 14-day quarantine.
And, there is no such thing anymore as walking in your front door to greet your family at the end of a day.
“For me,” said SWAT Team Leader Scott Godfrey, "the biggest change is that after my tour ends, and before I see my wife and kids, I am stripping down my uniform in the garage. My wife is trying to distract my boys so I can sneak past them, throw my clothes in a washing machine, and take a shower. What I could potentially be exposing my family to scares me to death, because everything I do is for my kids and my family.”
Another challenging aspect of policing in the COVID-19 era, the officers said, was the literal and figurative distancing they have to do from the community members they serve. “Normally, if I want to go talk to a bunch of people, I would just go walk the Downtown Mall," Sgt. Pleasants said. "Now, there is no one there, and the people who are there don’t necessarily want to get close enough to talk, which I completely understand. We do manage to visit some of our more populated neighborhoods to check in on people as much as we can. For the most part, it seems like everyone is happy to see us.”
Sgt. Via said he has taken advantage of the department’s newest transportation option to check in with community members. “We have these new Segways, and from time to time, I will ride around downtown. It sparks some conversations, which are all properly socially distanced, and it is a nice way to connect with people, which is something I think we all miss these days,” he said. "Those conversations have allowed community members to see the officers in a new light. They are trying to protect themselves, and they see us doing the same thing. In a way, I think this has humanized us.”
For Godfrey and his SWAT Team colleagues, where so much of what they do day in and day out is based on rigorous and specific trainings, the COVID era offers unique challenges. “There is really no training for something like this situation,” he said. “At this time, everything is on a day-to-day basis. It’s really about using common sense, having your PPE ready, reporting any potential exposures up the food chain, and monitoring our own health to protect a large exposure for the department. Right now, we have been very fortunate, and I think that is because we have done a good job of staying safe while we are out there.”
While so much has changed, the officers stressed that their main goal, keeping the community safe, remains their highest priority. “We are telling people to stay inside, because it is not safe to do otherwise," said Godfrey. "We need the community to be mindful that we are doing our best to help them be as safe as possible. We are all going to need each other to get through this. As long as we all work together, I think we will be just fine.”