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Coronavirus radically reshaping city policing in Schenectady

Coronavirus radically reshaping city policing in Schenectady

Coronavirus radically reshaping city policing in Schenectady
Schenectady Police Officer Albert Rivera talks with fellow Officer Aaron Zampella during a welfare check at Steinmetz Homes Mon.
Photographer: Peter Barber/Staff Photographer

City police Officer James Plowden watched a panel van roll through an intersection near Jerry Burrell Park. “He just smoked that stop sign and wasn’t wearing his seatbelt,” Plowden said. “But is it worth the contact?”

Policing, challenging in even the most sedate of times, has taken on an additional layer of uncertainty amid the creeping coronavirus pandemic. At a time when peoples’ nerves are frayed and the virus is ravaging the state, law enforcement must make split-second decisions that seek to balance enforcing low level city ordinances while also trying to limit social contact.

Plowden cruised through Central Park on Saturday studying packs of people walking together.

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Are they six feet apart? Should he intervene?

Later, he glanced at an open window at a vacant property on Germania Avenue. Ordinarily, the city’s Code Department would respond. But they’ve tamped down operations, responding to emergency calls only.

Is venturing inside and ticketing a possibly-infected person for trespassing a top priority?

Probably not. Risk management in the era of self-distancing.

Plowden wiped down his vehicle with disinfectant at the beginning of his shift. Suspects are rarely transported in patrol cars anymore, but instead in wagons.

“We try to transport them one by one to keep them distanced from each other,” Plowden said. “We’re trying to protect everyone involved.”

But waiting for the vans and the disinfection process slows down the transport process, and other calls start piling up.

“You’re stretched,” Plowden said.

Just days after the state implemented stringent measures to halt the spread of the virus, closing schools and requiring workers at non-essential businesses to stay home, the pandemic has already dramatically reshaped policing.

On the front lines are hyper-attentive cops analyzing the ramifications, often in split seconds.

Plowden cruised up State Street, pointing out the darkened businesses, which are now targets for break-ins.

At the same time, city police must give extra patrols to the essential stores that remain open, including supermarkets and healthcare facilities.

There’s been an increase in calls to supermarkets as panic-buying continues, said Plowden, who has personally responded to calls of people surrounding employees and customers fighting over dwindling supplies.

“People need food for their family,” Plowden said. “They’re in hardship and it’s going to drive up crime.”

Among the locations requiring extra attention was Stewart’s on Brandywine Avenue, where a customer stole soap the day before, rattling staff.

Cu s to m e rs f il te re d through the store, including a woman who held up her chapped hands, roughed up after scrubbing her home down with bleach.

As Plowden patrols, he checks in with people from the neighborhood, making small talk with students and blue-collar workers, including those suddenly furloughed or laid off.

If he hears of job opportunities, he passes them along. The same goes for the latest state directives, which he dispenses with an aura of calmness in order to set an example.

“Visibility is big, just being out here,” Plowden said. “You’re just trying to do what you can to help.”

People went about their lives on a sunny Saturday, buying Slurpees, stocking up on home-improvement items and car parts as pizza delivery cars navigated rapidly-emptying streets.

As public life winds down, the law enforcement ramifications are only now surfacing.

Officers will now be required to monitor closed bars and restaurants for compliance, ensuring none are operating illegally.

And with people confined to their homes, Plowden has already seen an uptick in domestic violence calls.

With schools dismissed until at least April 1, Plowden anticipates a spike in juvenile-related crime. More police calls to homes are also inevitable as kids argue with their parents, “which means they call us and we intervene,” Plowden said.

Welfare calls for the elderly will also likely see an increase.

Once officers arrive at a location, dispatchers now call the residence and tell people to come outside.

That’s what happened on Second Avenue, where Plowden responded to a call about a possible break-in.

Earlier, he watched a man and a woman moving along the tree line in Central Park.

As the woman wandered over, Plowden cracked the passenger’s side window and told her to stay back.

“We’re playing a game and collecting bottles,” said the woman, her speech slurred. “That’s not a problem, right?”

She held up a battered Frisbee.

The man crouched in the underbrush and Plowden told him to pour out his Natty Daddy tallboy. He ambled over, unsteady on his feet, and gave his name as “Johnny Cash.”

“Is there any update on the corona stuff that we’re supposed to be locked in?” he said.

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Plowden ran their information and let them go after determining they had no outstanding warrants, telling them to wash their hands before watching them unsteadily make their way down Bradley Street and disappear around the corner.

The interaction prompted a new set of concerns:

Will bottle collectors handling saliva-specked cans and bottles facilitate the spread of the virus, which spreads mainly through droplets spread between people?

The virus lives longest on plastic and steel, surviving for up to 72 hours, according to a study published last week by the New England Journal of Medicine.

And as the economy continues to be battered by the pandemic, turf wars will likely emerge between scavengers, Plowden said. “That happens in inner-cities, which is crazy,” he said.

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