Edmonton police officers working the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic are dealing with a new threat.
Suspects have been faking COVID-19 symptoms in an attempt to intimidate and threaten officers, says police chief Dale McFee.
“We are seeing a bit of an uptick in people pretending they have COVID-19 to avoid arrest — coughing or whatever,” McFee said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.
During a recent arrest, a man told a group of officers attempting to arrest him that he had tested positive for the virus and had been told to self-isolate, McFee said.
“Well, we soon found out that he didn’t and had never had been tested.”
Those using the virus as a threat will not go unpunished, he said.
“We’re going to do our darnedest to hold people accountable for that because it’s unacceptable,” McFee said.
“It’s unacceptable from a community perspective, from a safety perspective and obviously there is no regard for other people’s safety.”
‘Challenged like everybody else’
And while false claims of COVID-19 may be a dramatic example of how the pandemic is changing the nature of community policing, the spread of COVID-19 is having implications throughout the force.
In the three weeks since Alberta’s first confirmed case, the composition of crime in the city has changed.
As more people confine themselves to their homes, domestic violence and mental health calls have risen, McFee said. Reports of fraud and petty theft have also spiked as opportunistic criminals take advantage of vulnerable, socially-isolated people.
And while streets are no longer congested with daily commuters, more “high-flyers” are taking advantage of the open road, he said.
“Our people are calm and they’re prepared,” he said. “Obviously we’re trying to find new ways of dealing with this.
“There’s a little bit of balance to it. That said, we’re obviously challenged like everybody else is.”
Under new directives from the province last week, police officers are also being asked to handle complaints of people defying isolation orders and other public health regulations intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Police and community peace officers have been given authority to levy steep fines for breaking isolation orders.
Edmonton police have responded to about 50 health-order complaints but no tickets have yet been issued, McFee said.
259 EPS staff members in isolation
Meanwhile, 911 dispatch centres have been flooded with non-emergency calls about people and businesses defying public health orders, straining a workforce significantly reduced by the pandemic.
Some 259 EPS staff members are in isolation due to recent travel or chronic health concerns, McFee said.
An emergency operations centre has been established to deal with the increased workload.
“We’re working with health and with the city to find a plan that’s going to work in the most effective manner to deal with those people that just disregard health orders,” he said.
“We evaluate these things on a daily basis and we adjust accordingly, but obviously call number 1 is to keep our citizens and our community safe.”
Times like these bring out the best and worst of people and for the large part it’s the best.– Dale McFee
McFee said nurses on staff at EPS are helping monitor members for symptoms and administration is working on new protocols to help officers adhere to social-distancing regulations during interactions with the public.
He hopes the community will come together to support police in their work. The best way people can do that is by staying home, he said.
“We’re in this together. The only way we’re going to get out of it quicker is through compliance and listening to our health officials,” he said.
“Times like these bring out the best and worst of people and, for the large part, it’s the best.”