Officers adapt to policing during pandemic

Delaware State Police officers stand on the boardwalk during a Reopen Delaware rally in Rehoboth Beach on May 16. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

REHOBOTH BEACH — Eighteen seasonal officers — most of them new to the job — stayed cool amidst a passionate crowd Saturday afternoon.

They followed the lead of their veteran Rehoboth Beach Police officers, and no unruly incidents were reported at the Reopen Delaware rally that drew between 100 and 200 people to the Rehoboth Bandstand and vicinity.

Police department spokesman Lt. Jaime Riddle said this week no citations or arrests ensued. The recently conveyed training in verbal deescalation tactics worked.

And that’s what officers are aiming for, especially as they add the layers of coronavirus pandemic regulations to their patrols.

Officers regularly face intensity. “So whether it is COVID-19 or another issue, we always train and prepare our seasonal cadets as best as possible for the verbal interactions they may experience during stressful situations,” Lt. Riddle said, adding that every officer has received training on current COVID-19 procedures.

In a time when society is being asked to follow new rules, such as keeping a social distance from someone, wearing face coverings in public and avoiding groups, talking tools to quell potential physical confrontations have never been more valuable.

The measured responses “are a tremendous asset to every officer which they often use to prevent injury and save lives; therefore, the current pandemic aside, this will always be a focus of training for law enforcement,” Lt. Riddle said.

Given that law enforcement is likely to don a mask to do that work, it creates a new situation for all involved.

In Selbyville, officers underwent extra online training through the national company Lexipol, which also provided directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Rehoboth Beach Police Officer Victor Letonoff talks with a resident during a Reopen Delaware rally in Rehoboth on May 16. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Since either you or the law enforcement officer (or both of you) may have partially covered faces, it’s especially important to be clear in conveying verbal information,” said Jeff Wittenberger, Lexipol Senior Director of Law Enforcement Content.

“I think we take for granted the amount of essential nonverbal cues that we express on the now-covered portions of our faces, and what may be intended as a friendly greeting or request could come across much differently to the recipient since they can’t see the full expression that accompanies it …

“So the key takeaway is this: All parties should take extra precautions that their verbal communications are clear, even to the extent of overexplaining or verbalizing their intent. This will reduce the chance of miscommunications from all parties and hopefully bring us closer to where we were in the pre-mask days.”

Selbyville Police Chief Scott Collins said officers are issued two cloth masks per officer for normal wear in public and three N95 masks per officer for medical calls, or when inside a business or house where the occupants are known to or suspected of having COVID-19.

“We have a good supply of replacement masks if needed, and have access to UV and ion sanitizers,” he said.

Many police departments indicated that verbal tactics were already instilled pre-COVID, but that the ongoing pandemic presents unique issues.

“There are many different rules that have been put out and rescinded during the course of this pandemic. Many times we are finding that people are mostly confused about what is in effect and what is not,” said Cheswold Chief Chris Workman, whose department purchased cloth masks and requires officers “use (them)when speaking with individuals for any reason and when entering any businesses or homes.”

Dover Police spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman acknowledged the new challenges.

“We have always had policies and procedures in place for large gatherings, etc.,” he said. “Of course, the current situation adds another layer to the way we handle these types of things.”

Delaware State Police troopers have not received extra training on dealing with crowds in the pandemic. Spokeswoman Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe said the agency “will continue to enforce the laws regarding” emergency orders “with the primary goal of achieving voluntary compliance.”

That type of compliance is critical, as Lt. Riddle saw it at work in Rehoboth Beach last weekend.

While the new officers “conducted themselves in a professional manner,” which Lt. Riddle called a “testament to the training they received and the mentorship provided by our full-time officers,” he credited the many people in the crowd willing to follow posted emergency order regulations.

An official press release on the event stated: “The majority of those who were in attendance contributed to making this a safe event as they were civil, respectful and orderly.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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