San Mateo County police departments vs. COVID-19

How has implementing law and order changed amid the threats of the global pandemic?


John Harrison

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be no job that has been as uniquely changed as the role of the police.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be no job that has been as uniquely changed as the role of the police.

In the face of the world turning over, guides for police departments to follow to navigate the pandemic have been published by local organizations, cities, counties, and even the United Nations in their document “Police Planning During a COVID-19 Pandemic”, which was released in April 2020. The document outlines a variety of guidelines, designed to be applicable to police departments around the world.

The biggest changes they recommend are the usage of PPE, or personal protective equipment, and the allocation of resources to the enforcement of public health orders. They also recommend that the police force be the “main interface” for the community to ask questions and receive assistance, and provide a list of calls in which to expect an increase, such as domestic violence, human trafficking, and civil unrest.

In the local community, similar alterations to those recommended by the United Nations are observed. Corporal Mark Kosta of the South San Francisco Police Department (SSFPD)’s Community Relations Division spoke about how their department enforced San Mateo County’s stay-at-home order and other restrictions during the beginning of the pandemic.

“During the early stages of the pandemic, the SSFPD took on the role of facilitator for the guidelines set forth from County and State Health officials,” Kosta said. “In many ways, we are trained for this; however, a pandemic of this magnitude was unprecedented for many of us as first responders in the Bay Area.”

The chief of police at the Pacifica Police Department, Dan Steidle, echoed similar sentiments in a video released to the department’s Facebook page in March.

“I cannot stress the importance of the orders from the San Mateo County health officer and the governor of the state of California to shelter in place,” Steidle said. “Please make good decisions during these turbulent times and help us to guide our community through this period. Pacifica is a strong community, and we will get through this together.”

Captain Michael Haobsh of the San Mateo Police Department’s Media & Community Relations described how their department’s calls changed when the pandemic started.

“Our calls for service changed when COVID-19 started happening and the county and the state created the stay-at-home order,” Haobsh said. “People would call in to report violations that included landscapers, or groups of people not wearing masks, or restaurants that may have been open.”

Even as they promote the county and state restrictions, however, local departments’ focus seems to be education in place of enforcement.

“In the event we received information of potential POV (Public Order Violations), the SSFPD made it a point to immediately respond and educate individuals who may be in violation,” Kosta said. “In many ways this was considered a ‘warning’, but in all honesty, members of the community were so committed to public safety and abiding by the guidelines, further counselling or any means of enforcement was never needed.”

This approach to policing the pandemic, with a focus on educating those in violation of health orders, has been taken on by most of the city police departments in San Mateo County. The approach seems to have been effective as well. Chief John Munsey of the Colma Police Department shared his experience with keeping the community safe and following the orders.

“For the most part the Colma Police Department followed the same procedure as other San Mateo County Law Enforcement agencies and adhered to a ‘stop-and-educate’ policy as opposed to an enforcement procedure,” Munsey said. “We had almost no pushback from individuals who refused to follow the health orders.”

Munsey also spoke about how willing businesses were to comply with public health orders as well.

“We worked closely with the San Mateo County COVID-19 Business Compliance Unit,” Munsey said. “If they received complaints regarding businesses in Colma not complying with the health orders, they would forward the complaint to us and we would inform the business. In all cases, the businesses we contacted were happy to work with us in finding solutions to the problem.”

Highlighting how well the community stuck to the stay at home orders, Haobsh shared how few citations the SMPD gave out during the stay-at-home orders.

“We only handed out a handful of citations — maybe four or five — and those were related to gang shootings and loitering and partying,” Haobsh said. “But overall, most of our contacts stayed in the education phase.”

Captain John Gamez of the Daly City Police Department shared that the department has not given out a single citation related to the COVID-19 restrictions throughout the course of the pandemic, and were able to convince individuals to cooperate in every situation.

The pandemic hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the police, though. The role of many police departments involves engaging with their community, and requirements to social distance and stay home have reduced the opportunity for this kind of activity.

Chief Munsey spoke about Colma’s struggle with this challenge and how they have worked with social distancing to keep connected with the community.

“With the onset of COVID-19 it has been difficult to continue many of the community engagement opportunities we are used to,” Munsey said. “Nevertheless, we have done the best we can and still managed, while socially distancing, to participate in National Night Out, Coffee with a Cop, Elderly Food Distribution, Blood Drive, Candy Cane Day, Veterans Christmas Eve Dinner Distribution and an upcoming no-contact Food Drive.”

Gamez shared similar sentiments, speaking about the pandemic-specific events that the Daly City Police Department has hosted.

“We’ve gotten involved more with community outreach and events which are specific to the pandemic, which are things like food drives,” Gamez said. “There are a number of food drives in Daly City, and we’ve participated in all of those food drives for quite some time, as well as things like drive-by birthday parties to make a little kid feel good on his birthday.”

While police try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, they also have to ensure that the virus does not ravage their own departments the way they did to the New York City Police Department, where, early in the pandemic, almost one in five employees were out sick with COVID-19.

The police departments in San Mateo County have taken a series of steps, including surveys for all officers before shifts, various PPE being distributed, increased disinfection, and a COVID-19 safety team, in order to stay in compliance with the latest guidelines.

Haobsh shared one unique way that the SMPD has increased disinfection in their department.

“We ended up filling shallow buckets with bleach water so that we could dunk our boots into the bleach water before we came into the police station.” he said.

Police are now finally eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination in San Mateo County, so they are entering the process of getting their police departments vaccinated.

This pandemic has put a strain on the community and its police alike, but it also represents an opportunity for improvements on the part of the police. While precautions such as masks and social distancing will not be necessary in the future, some of the policies and procedures taken on during this pandemic — the policy of education over enforcement, for example — can improve San Mateo County’s law enforcement agencies.