On March 19, according to the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden issued a directive authorizing division commanders to order officers to continue routine, invasive policing during the COVID-19 pandemic at their discretion: “A commander has full discretion to allow self-initiated activity when warranted.”
This was when COVID-19, a deadly disease with no known cure that is spread through physical proximity and casual contact like exchanging a driver’s license and a traffic ticket, was spreading in the city and all over the news media. City public health officials were recommending that people avoid physical contact and remain six feet away from others, which you can’t do when pulling over motorists and writing traffic tickets.
According to ESOP, an association that advocates for racial and gender equity in police work, some of its leaders approached Hayden and advised the chief that allowing self-initiated activity in Traffic Safety in particular placed officers, other employees, and the public at unnecessary risk. And all for what? A traffic ticket.
“His decision to send a temporary directive allowing self-initiated activity was the wrong decision and put officers and citizens in harm’s way,” ESOP claimed.
Days later, Hayden’s boss’ boss, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, ordered people in the city to stay at home and to stop going to all jobs that are not essential. Though the police remain an essential public service for maintaining public safety, under the circumstances, maybe writing traffic tickets was not essential. Yet ESOP claimed that the Traffic Safety commander ordered officers to continue routine traffic enforcement. ESOP claimed that officers in Traffic Safety repeatedly voiced their concerns with this decision, yet were ignored.
How many traffic tickets did St. Louis police officers in the Traffic Division write between the mayor’s issuance of the Stay at Home order on March 23 and March 27, when at least two of them tested positive for COVID-19?
Though asked repeatedly to report the number of citations issued by the Traffic Division during the first week of the mayor’s Stay at Home order, Sgt. Keith Barrett, a police spokesman, did not reply. Local civil rights attorney Chelsea Merta filed a Sunshine Law request for the information, partly on behalf of The St. Louis American. Amazingly, the police department replied that there are “no responsive records” – claiming it does not track the number of tickets its officers write.
ESOP broke the news that the Traffic Division of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was under quarantine after at least two supervisors in the division and one officer had tested positive for COVID-19 (and some other front-line officers are beginning to exhibit symptoms of the disease) on Saturday, March 28.
Asked to comment, the same police spokesman said, “We do not discuss the health status of our employees.” Asked again, without divulging any personal health information, whether the Traffic Division was under quarantine, the police spokesman did not reply.
As the story continued to gain momentum on Saturday, a spokesman for Krewson finally confirmed that two city employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and other city employees were “under self-quarantine” and “being monitored intently,” which in essence confirmed the ESOP’s claims.
The police spokesman said department officers had been issued personal protective equipment, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ESOP disputed that claim. “There was a shortage of some personal protective equipment (PPE), some equipment was not approved PPE, or simply unavailable until recently,” ESOP claimed.
A police spokesman was invited to respond to these claims and stuck to his story: “Our citizens can expect to receive the same level of professional service from the men and women of the SLMPD with regards to life safety as they do every day.” For those who would claim that bungling a pandemic is just another day on the job for St. Louis police leadership, it appears the department itself cosigns on that.
The ESOP’s statement about the incident included guidance for the leadership of the city and police department: “We urge the City of St. Louis leadership, the chief of police, all command in SLMPD to adhere to the CDC guidelines with social distancing and warn the public and employees in SLMPD when an employee has been exposed to COVID-19 or tests positive.”
Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of ESOP, also made a more personal comment to The American, sounding more like a concerned colleague than a police accountability advocate: “I can say we would welcome your prayers.”