Austin (KXAN) — Austin City Council unanimously approved $885,407 in grant funding for the Austin Police Department to protect its employees from contracting or spreading COVID-19.
The bulk of that money, $842,977, will go toward personal protective equipment for officers in their interactions with the public. The department anticipates that the protective equipment supplied through this grant will last through January 2022.
These funds are awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The city will pay for these expenses initially out of its budget and then the grant will reimburse the city for what was spent. In addition to personal protective equipment (such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves, protective gowns, hoods, goggles and hand sanitizer) the grant also will cover:
- $33,214 to offer 386 hours of overtime for sworn officers and 193 hours of overtime for civilians employed by the department. This overtime can only be used for instances where hours are accrued specifically related to the COVID-19 emergency
- $9,216 which will be set aside for 2021 to send six APD employees to pandemic response training to learn about nationwide best practices.
Assistant Police Chief Joseph Chacon who oversees emergency management for the department explained that if the past few months have been any indicator, these funds will be needed in the months ahead.
“To date, I know that we’ve spent well over $300,000 outfitting our police department, our officers with that type of equipment,” Chacon said. “So we will be able to seek reimbursement for that money back through the grant and it will help us to prepare for the future.”
Chacon continued, “we know that CDC is telling us that we’re going to have a second-round coming up later this year and that could be around the same time we see influenza, so it could be even worse for us.”
“So we just want to make sure we keep our officers as safe as we can,” he said.
USA Today reported Thursday that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said the U.S. must be as “over prepared as possible” for a second wave of both lock downs and infections related to the novel coronavirus.
Chacon explained that APD applied for this grant funding from the Department of Justice Bureau of Assistance under the Coronavirus Supplemental Funding Program.
He said his department has been tracking its use of protective equipment since the start of the virus and “I am glad to say we have not been burning through it at the rate we thought we might.”
But Chacon noted, the department doesn’t know yet what the need will be for this protective equipment in the fall or next year.
He anticipates the department will need to roll out training for how they will have to interact with the public and how to keep themselves and others safe from COVID-19 in the future, which is why part of the grant will send six officers to a training program with other departments from around the country.
During the pandemic, Chacon said, “a vast majority of calls that come into 911,we are still responding to.”
Officers are still responding to calls about domestic violence, aggravated assaults, and robberies which may require the officer to make a physical custody arrest, Chacon said. He sees the point of making a physical custody arrest as the time APD officers would be most likely to contract the virus during the course of their work.
So far, three APD officers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and two of those officers have made a full recovery and are back at work, Chacon said.
To protect against possible infection, officers are asked to wear masks any time they are interacting with the public. Chacon noted that if officers are alone in their patrol vehicle they are not asked to wear masks. Additionally, if someone is sick inside an APD patrol vehicle, the department will decontaminate that vehicle.
“Our officers as this has progressed, understand they need to maintain six feet as best as possible — sometimes that’s possible, sometimes it’s not — and to limit that interaction and to try and resolve things, if they can, without having to make an arrest, because once they make an arrest and put that person into the jail population, that’s another issue. Having people in the jail, we’ve seen that that’s a place where [COVID-19] can kind of breed and get out of control, so we’re trying to work with the Sheriff’s Office to limit the number of people we’re taking to the jail,” he said.
N95 masks are the equipment that APD has the hardest time getting.
The department tries to reserve them until “it’s absolutely necessary.”
When APD officers do use N95 masks, Chacon said, they have a way of decontaminating those masks and reusing them again. But if officers wear N-95 masks in a place where they think there may be a possibility that someone else has COVID-19, the officers are being asked to dispose of the masks they wore to that location.
The grant money approved Thursday is only designed to provide equipment for law enforcement, not for the general public.
“That doesn’t mean that if an officer is out in the field and sees somebody who needs a mask, that hey can’t give them a mask,” he said.
Chacon believes the biggest difference his department can make in mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 is educating the community when officers come into contact with people on a daily basis.
“I think people are becoming really quarantine weary, they really are just getting tired of being inside all the time,” he said. “You see the governor he’s starting to slowly starting to reopen our economy and reopen the communities and the state, people are kind of rushing the gates. We have people that are overcrowding our parks, that are going to the beaches down on the coast and really overcrowding the beaches, and that is just not safe.”
“What we need to do is just educate,” Chacon continued. “We are not looking to necessarily enforce — that’s like a last resort — but to help people to understand this is not something that is just going to be resolved in a couple of months. This is really a marathon and we need to, as a community, come together, do all the things that are being asked of us, and take care of each other and take care of ourselves.”
He explained that APD wants to follow Austin Public Health’s guidance on COVID-19 and help people understand that guidance better.