On the street: Omicron surge strains California police agencies

Police investigators stand at a command post near a crime scene following a house party shooting in Inglewood on Jan. 23, 2022. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

The call-ins were steady. Deputies were out sick. So were dispatchers. Even the sheriff was forced to stay home for five days. 

In a month’s time, the small Sierra County Sheriff’s Office became a revolving door of isolating and returning staff. 

When Sheriff-Coroner Mike Fisher was elected in 2018 in this county of 3,200, community policing and recruiting talented officers were high on his priority list. But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he had to settle for a less ambitious role: driving a jail inmate to a doctor’s appointment, about 90 miles away in suburban Sacramento. 

Up and down California, the contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has shaken the state’s labor market. Hospitals are understaffed. Schools are low on teachers and substitutes. And law enforcement officers and first responders — who are increasingly exposed to risky, one-on-one contacts and super-spreader events — are having to make do with fewer people.

Since the surge began in December, law enforcement agencies have been forced to increase overtime, reduce services and reroute non-emergency calls to online portals, according to a CalMatters survey of more than 30 agencies statewide.

“Our people are tired,” said Lt. Ray Kelly, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. “They are working extra hours; they’re working extra shifts…picking up the slack where they have to.”

Most of the agencies contacted by CalMatters are largely funded by local governments. While state lawmakers have agreed to extend paid sick leave for workers and support for small businesses, among other things, no statewide effort has been made to help city and county law enforcement agencies deal with the variant’s fallout.

State agencies also are feeling the strain. 

The California Highway Patrol, the largest statewide police department, would not detail how many officers have been out to COVID but “we have not been immune,” said spokesperson Fran Clader. Even so, she said, the “COVID-related absences have not impacted the Department’s mission.”

CHP cars surround stolen white van abandoned on Greenbank and Grand avenues in Piedmont on Sept. 28, 2019.

Recently, news stories have reflected some of the unique COVID-related challenges and job reassignments the highway patrol has faced. After high-profile retail thefts in Northern and Southern California, Gov. Gavin Newsom enlisted the agency in November to increase patrols near retail areas over the holidays, as the omicron virus took off. 

“California is substantially increasing CHP’s presence, especially near retail areas, and will be investing even more to aggressively curb retail crime,” Newsom said in a press release. “As a small business owner myself, I am resolved to holding these criminals accountable and protecting our local businesses.”

Earlier this month, as COVID cases rose, Newsom also activated the California National Guard to work with communities to add more testing sites. The governor has called on the Guard several times since the pandemic began to secure the Capitol from potential armed protesters and to distribute goods at food banks, among other things.

As state-level law enforcement agencies say they are experiencing outbreaks within their ranks, so are local law departments – often with fewer resources. 

In Yuba County for instance, which has the state’s highest rate of COVID hospitalizations, the small sheriff’s department has recently called in part-time reserve officers as the virus spread through its ranks. 

“Some are retired, others are not full-time law enforcement officers and can be different ‘levels’ of qualifications,” spokesperson Leslie Williams wrote in an email.

In Mount Shasta, after roughly half of its 13-person policing staff was out for COVID, the chief stepped in. 

“I pulled duty shifts; dispatchers were working seven days in a row,” said police chief Robert Gibson. “It pretty much took out my overtime budget for the year.” 

While smaller agencies struggled, one of the largest police forces in the country said it was able to maintain business as usual after nearly 900 Los Angeles Police Department officers were out last week. A department spokesperson said the agency has maintained its staffing for patrols. 

Facing outbreaks and labor shortages, some agencies doubled down on longer shifts and the power of technology. 

Imperial County on the Mexican border has seen it all during this pandemic. The first wave of infections in 2020 hit its communities hard. Then, the county boasted one of the best-in-the-state for vaccinations by August 2021. Then came the omicron variant, which has significantly increased hospitalizations there. 

By that time, the Imperial Police Department said it was somewhat prepared. The department already had started steering people with non-emergencies to its website to report crimes and neighborhood problems. 

“Before the pandemic, we were responding to people’s houses for any call for service,” said Max Sheffield, Imperial Police spokesman. “It’s really changed policing for us.”

The Kern County Sheriff’s Office also was asking the public during this month’s omicron surge to use the agency’s online system to report crimes that were in progress, or other non-emergencies,” according to a report from KABK-KBFX.

While some duties can be shifted to an online portal, day-to-day policing cannot. 

Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher at the Downieville Sheriff’s Department office. The department has experienced labor shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jan. 25, 2022. Andri Tambunan for CalMatters.

Last Tuesday morning, 400 miles north of Kern County, Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher pulled out a familiar wardrobe and hit the road. 

Shuttling incarcerated people is not the typical fare for the duly elected sheriff and coroner. But with his transport deputy under quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, Fisher did what everyone has had to do. 

He adapted.

“I got to dust off some uniform stuff and head out into the real world,” he said.

For now, though, things are looking up. This week marked the first time the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office has had a full staff in more than two weeks. 

“I’m knocking on wood because that’s subject to change tomorrow,” he said.

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