Local NewsCoronavirus Pandemic Increases Job Hazards for Austin Police as They Remain Plagued by Staff Shortage

As most citizens are told to stay home and stay safe, police officers do not have that luxury. Here's what Austin police have to say about the changes to their job since the rise of coronavirus.
March 27, 2020
Just over a month ago, The Texan accompanied an Austin police officer on a night shift ride-along. Since then, public health and safety circumstances have changed drastically as coronavirus has swept not only the nation but the world.

And with increased personal conduct restrictions being implemented — including in Austin — police are tasked with new enforcements in addition to the day-to-day stressors of their jobs.

The Austin Police Department, specifically, must add coronavirus policy enforcement to a long list of responsibilities including the city’s mounting homelessness problem, all the while suffering from a serious staff shortage driven by recruitment deficits.

As of mid-March, APD was short 150 officers and is now forced to divert manpower from some areas to cover others — such as from parks and motorcycle units to other sectors. Officers are also having to work overtime or switch their daytime shifts to nighttime out of necessity — which can take a toll on their home lives.

This has been a developing problem for years as the tensions between police, elected officials, and the communities they both serve have risen, and have undoubtedly been spurred by the manner in which American media has covered the situation.

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Locally, this same tension has developed as Austin’s city council has implemented policies such as a directive to increase “personal bond” use for accused offenders, the well-known rescission of the camping and lying ordinance, and an analysis on “racial profiling” practices within APD.

But with coronavirus adding a whole new facet, the police have had to adjust — especially while not being able to work from home like so many others.

The Texan spoke with Cpl. William Costello of the Austin Police Department, to hear how his and his fellow officers’ jobs have changed in the last month. Costello, an eight-year veteran, oversees the night shift for Charlie sector — which covers the Central-East side of the city.

Austin Police Corporal William Costello

“We used to race from call to call to call, but a lot of those have disappeared,” Costello said.

911 calls have dropped 25 percent recently due to dispatch changes — for example, reports for anything from noise complaints to burglary are now handled over the phone. Manpower is being focused on violent crimes and mental health cases.

“After the president made his 15-day announcement, calls started to drop,” as citizens began to self-isolate said Costello. “But now we’re starting to see those pick back up a bit towards their normal level.”

Just like any profession, police are taking more health-related precautions to limit their exposure to the virus. But due to the nature of their job, they cannot eliminate that risk altogether, especially when having to use limited situational knowledge to make snap decisions on the scene when escalations occur.

“What we’re finding is that officers must make immediate decisions when they arrive on scene, and when that happens officers don’t have time to inquire about the citizen’s health,” said Costello.

Oftentimes, he explained, officers are finding out that offenders have a fever as they’re being screened upon entering the jail. This then requires their transport to the hospital, which officers must supervise.

“It’s become a lingering concern because I think officers realize it’s probably just a matter of time before [the officers] get it,” Costello stated, which then leads to concerns about their own families. It’s a new layer of stress for an already stress-laden job.

Sometimes, Costello said, offenders with mental illnesses shout “I have coronavirus” as the police approach — further complicating the interaction.

This uncertainty is something police deal with every day, but the spread of coronavirus has exacerbated these circumstances. 

If officers are exposed, they are quarantined. If they have a family member who is immunocompromised, the officer is put up in a hotel room. 

Additionally, the city can test its employees, though a test will not be administered until an individual is showing symptoms, and how long symptoms take to show varies by person.

Costello elaborated on one precaution taken by the department, explaining that, “Before a shift, we all take our temperatures and if someone records above 99.6 degrees, they are sent home.”

This comes in addition to their pre-patrol routine which can take a significant amount of time. Officers are now ordered to also sanitize all equipment and vehicles.

APD officers have begun to utilize a type of “bug-bomb” used to kill viruses and germs instead of pests. The mechanism is activated and placed in the car, then the door is shut and left for 15 minutes. When it’s done, the car has been sanitized.

Protocol changes for officers, Costello said, have largely been related to implementing “social distancing” requirements — maintaining a six-foot distance, washing hands frequently, using proper protective equipment such as gloves, etc. — as often as possible. 

The supply shortages seen throughout the country have also affected the police, but private sector businesses have provided stop-gap measures to alleviate this need, including some distilleries using their resources to produce hand sanitizer.

APD, Costello said, generally only has one mask available per person per shift.

The Texan spoke with Ken Casaday with the Austin Police Association (APA) who said officers are hesitant to use the masks so as not to alarm the public they’re interacting with.

Casaday was on patrol last night and, reflecting what Costello observed, only had five or six calls for the entire shift team. 

During The Texan’s recent ride-along with APD, three calls were fielded by one unit alone — which was a small number itself due to the inordinate duration of the calls.

One of those calls, Casaday said, occurred when one of the city’s H.A.L.O cameras captured an ongoing drug deal. Even during a global pandemic, many aspects of the job remain unchanging.

APA, like many other community organizations, has stepped up to help those in need during this crisis, donating $10,000 to the Central Austin Food Bank.

As far as the personnel strains APD is experiencing as manpower needs are increased, Casaday said that while some employees, such as detectives, can do most of their work from home, the patrols cannot.

Most people can isolate and maintain a metaphorical symptom clock of two to 14 days — the end of which signals an all-clear. “But,” Costello said, “my 2-14 clock resets every time I leave the house for a shift.”

But Casaday maintains that the main reason for hiring shortages can be attributed to the good economic times. “Under presidents Obama and Trump, we’ve had a good economy and so it’s harder to attract applicants when so many jobs are available elsewhere,” he stated.

Now that the economy is set to continue on its downslope, law enforcement could mean a stable paycheck for job seekers. Casaday predicts APD will go from a few hundred applicants to over 1,000 — making it very likely they can fill the 150 vacancies currently plaguing the department.

Regarding the city’s shelter-order, and the enforcement provisions within it, Costello said, “We don’t want to have to enforce these provisions, we prefer just compliance. We don’t want to have to take it a step further, we don’t want to burden anybody during this time.”

That can be avoided if, the city says, citizens follow their guidelines. 

“Just don’t be congregating in large crowds.”

Costello concluded by stressing, “As much as it sucks to remain in your home, please stay inside. That is the only way we are going to prevent this from really spreading.”

While most others’ lives seem to be on pause, Costello and his family’s lives are not. The city still needs law enforcement despite much of the broad shutdown.

As this epidemic spreads, a night on patrol may mean two weeks in near-confinement for Austin police officers — who are already hampered by nationwide staffing shortages.

Editor’s Note: Based on information received from within the department, a previous version of this article inaccurately stated the percentage by which 911 calls had dropped. The number is 25 percent.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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