AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following the COVID-19 deaths of two Austin Police officers in the same week, the Austin Police Department is making some changes to reduce some officer contact with the public.
According to APD, lower priority calls will be handled online and by 311, rather than an officer responding in-person.
The department says nonpatrol units will also telework. However, they won’t work from home entirely. They’ll still work in-person to perform duties like conducting interviews and interrogations and collecting evidence.
APD’s main headquarters building is also now restricted.
The department adds that officers will continue to respond to hazardous and non-hazardous violations at their own discretion, as they’ve been doing.
APD Senior Police Officer Justin Berry says it’s important that the community works together with the department on efforts to limit contact for calls that aren’t an active emergency, especially if the calls are about a minor collision or a crime that happened earlier and isn’t still in progress.
“You can file that report online or over the phone through 311, and it’s no different than if an officer showed up,” Berry said. “The only difference is you’re minimizing that contact, you’re minimizing risk of exposures,”
Berry says in a lot of cases, filing an online report has its benefits, like being able to go back and add to it as needed.
“The beauty of that is as you’re typing a report, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I forgot about this thing,’ you can just include it in your report real quick. Because once an officer leaves the scene, you can’t be like, ‘Oh, I should have told him about this, or I should have told him about that.'”
APD dispatchers should be able to assist anyone who’s unsure whether their report requires an in-person response or not with making that decision.
Meanwhile, Berry posted an open letter on social media encouraging fellow officers and others to read trusted research from medical journals and make their own educated decisions on getting vaccinated. He acknowledges that there is some hesitancy among some.
“It’s not something that me and my colleagues openly talk about, ‘Hey, are you vaccinated?’ or ‘You should get vaccinated.’ We don’t have those conversations,” he said. “In our profession, we have far more concerns that we worry about now. COVID is just another one of those concerns.”
Berry says he was uncertain about being vaccinated at first, but he considered his family situation in his decision to get the shot, then read medical journals to get the facts.
“I was very conflicted, and I finally just looked around at, my wife was pregnant at the time. You know, all the work that I do publicly out in the community, all the stuff that I do through my job as a police officer,” Berry said. “
Personally, Berry says the COVID-19 deaths of Officer Randolph Boyd and Sergeant Steve Urias have changed his perspective.
He says after their deaths, his commander asked officers if they’d wear masks while at work.
“The compliance went through the roof, you know. Myself, many others, we’re all wearing masks now all around the place, whereas before when they had to come in, like, ‘We’re ordering you to do this or mandating this, it was met with great resistance,'” Berry said.