ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rochester police “are still open for business” according to their chief, La’Ron Singletary.
In an interview with Adam Chodak, Singletary talked about the challenges his men and women in blue are face in these precarious times where COVID-19 is prompting procedure changes and protection demands.
Adam Chodak: How are things in the department, generally?
La’Ron Singletary: As a chief, I’m trying to make sure that our people have what they need to go out there and do the job. As I said earlier, there are so many decisions that we as executives in law enforcement have to make and consider during this pandemic. I think the last pandemic was 1917, 1918, certainly, I don’t think many of us were around during that time. This right here is causing us to make decisions that we’ve never made before. We’re seeing the public health system almost come against the criminal justice system. They both are geared towards public safety and we’re having to make decisions that we’ve never made before.
As as a chief the thing that’s first and foremost is the mental health of the officers. You know, they have the same anxieties, the same fears that people in the community have. They don’t want to contract COVID-19. They don’t want to pass it on to loved ones at home so that’s one of the things that first and foremost in my mind as a law enforcement executive. And also the people of the City of Rochester. The job must continue, the job must go on and that’s what these men and women have done.
AC: You talk about tough decisions. What’s been one of the toughest decisions so far?
LS: Making sure the men and women out there on the front lines, those who are the first responders, in this case Rochester police officers have what they need, the proper PPE, surgical masks N95 masks as well as gloves, hand sanitizer and having the most information they need to arm themselves with to go out and do their job. The information, as you know, is changing quite drastically, minute by minute it’s coming from the federal level, the state level, the local level and then we have our own policies and procedures within our department that we’re continually changing and putting out the guidance on what those entities that I just mentioned are putting out.
So it’s trying to make sure everyone is on the same page. I sent an email out to our department last Friday and we try to have continuous conversations daily. I’ve designated a deputy chief in charge of COVID-19 and we’re on so many different phone calls, conference calls and we’re trying to make sure the officers on the road have what they need. Law enforcement is not invincible to COVID-19. We don’t have to look far. Our partners in Buffalo, NYC, Detroit, Chicago, first responders everywhere are feeling the impact of this. Knock on wood, we haven’t had one person in RPD impacted by COVID. Certainly we’ve had officers who have had been out, but not one person has tested positive and that’s a blessing.
AC: What’s behind that?
LS: I’ll tell you want, one, it’s a blessing, two, it’s preparation. We have a good network here in Monroe County when it comes to law enforcement executives. We meet quite often. This morning, we had a virtual meeting among all the chiefs and the Sheriff in Monroe County. The support from the government, the county executive, the mayor, the deputy mayor, I’m constantly on the phone with them talking about what’s new, what the officers need, the mayor is very concerned about our first responders as well.
AC: You talked about fear within the department, they don’t want to contract COVID-19. Has the issue of sick calls been an issue for the department?
LS: It has certainly not been an issue. We’ve had officers go out sick in regards to maybe coming back from a trip, when COVID-19 set on early, going on a trip and coming back, or officers who believe they may have been around someone who has contracted COVID in their personal lives and might have not come back to the department and not have wanted to infect their brother and sister officers. So everyone is taking precautions when it comes to COVID-19 and they’re listening and that’s a good thing and I think we haven’t had any officer test positive for COVID as of today and lot of it goes to having a strong team. I think I have one of the best command staffs and one of the best departments when you start from civilian employees all the way up to the chief myself, I think we have people in this department all the way to myself who are taking this seriously.
Like I said, law enforcement is not invincible to COVID-19 and we have to continue to preach that message. Like I said, our men and women have fears, they do not want to contract COVID-19, but they do understand that they must go out there and still serve the citizens of Rochester like it was prior to COVID-19 and we’re trying to arm them and put the information out to them and also provide them the best equipment possible which has been guided to us by the medical professionals. And certainly there’s information that we’ve been receiving from Dr. Mendoza and Dr. Cushman and pushing it out. I know it seems like information to the officers, but this stuff is real, this stuff is serious. In law enforcement I would equate it to an active killer.
We have situations across the country where we have active shooters, active killers, those situations we can typically see, we can sense it, we can visualize it. With COVID-19, you can’t, it’s a virus so how do you protect yourself against something you don’t see? So that’s what I equate it to. We are dealing with a pandemic that is of Biblical proportions, Biblical proportions.
AC: It says something to me that despite those very real fears, those men and women are still coming to working every day…
LS: I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women of this department. They leave their families and we have a stressful job already as is, they come into work, do what they do and that stress does not leave at the threshold of their residence. That stress stays with them and now you add COVID-19 on top of that. Prior to COVID-19 I always wondered, am I giving my officers the best resources, the knowledge, the skills, the tools, to go out there and do this job. We’re asking them to be family health therapists, we’ve asked them to be mental health therapists, teachers and now medical practitioners – add that to the long list of things they have to consider.
It is, as a chief, it keeps you up at night, you think about the officers who are on the front lines, who are going out into the community, who are going out into homes, investigating crimes that are still happening and you pray every night, you know. This department since I took over last April, I think you know, we’ve had some tragedies occur. We had Officer Manny Ortiz, we had Officer Denny Wright who was seriously physically injured in the line of duty and now you add COVID-19, you know, we’ve been through it in the last year, but faith, family and friends, I always say that. Faith, family and friends, and a good network. The mayor has been supportive, other chiefs across the county, the government with the regards to the county executive and mayor have all been good supports.
And you know I talked earlier about having a network across the country, fellow chiefs, other law enforcement executives that you can kind of rely on and say what are you doing over in your department, in you city, that we could be doing here. What’s the best practice? Monday mornings I have a meeting with my executive team and then I have a meeting with the captains across the department to see what we could be doing, what we are doing and what we’re not doing. Because there’s no right answer to this. Like I said, none of us was around in 1917or 1918, it’s doing the best job that we possibly can right now.
AC: With social distancing, Governor Cuomo as you’ve heard, he’s encouraging local law enforcement agencies to discourage it, perhaps in legal ways. Where do you stand on that when your men and women are out there and they see people not heed the warnings?
LS: Well, these are tough times for everyone and certainly we’re not adept to having our movement restricted, we’re not adept to not being able to go to the gym, not being able to go to the movie theater, all those things are closed right now, the malls, so what we’re trying to do is have a conscience where we can go out there and enforce. What we’re trying to do is make sure that people one, understand and take this serious, that we’re at a time, we’re in a pandemic, and we want educate folks about how serious this issue is, we do it through strong encouragement, social distancing, so a big portion of this is educational when it comes to individuals who are not practicing social distancing in the community.
We continue to preach that, we continue to enforce it. Luckily, I think we’ve had great success when it comes to businesses. Most businesses are closed and most businesses have voluntary compliance so from a law enforcement perspective what we want to do is use the least restrictive means to gain compliance and knock on wood I think we’ve seen that when it comes to businesses, not so much when it comes to social distancing out in the public and I think what it boils down to is individual responsibility. We have to responsible for ourselves when it comes to social distancing because if you talk about change of trajectory in this as medical experts say one solution that they know to work is social distancing. And we do see something people out there not practicing it. So the one thing will continue to do is educate and strongly encourage.
When it comes to businesses, we have the NYS Attorney General’s office as well as the health department that we can refer things to or take action ourselves, but the one thing we’ll continue to do is educate, educate, educate, that’s what we need to do and, again, I can’t stress enough the individual responsibility have to be accountable to one another, that’s how we’re going to stop the spread of this.
AC: So at this point, no fines and no arrests…
LS: That’s right, no fines, no arrests, but people are calling and I appreciate the public calling, letting us know when they see large gatherings, large groups so people are doing their part and it let’s you know that people are taking this seriously.
AC: Are you seeing less crime out in the community because of COVID-19?
LS: Well, I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve seen a couple instances this weekend and leading up to the weekend where we have seen maybe a slight uptick, but I think more people may be paying attention to such as a result of there is nothing else going on. You know, we do know there will be a boiling point in the community where people are tired of staying in their homes, cabin fever, people are going to come out, but I would strongly urge the community, strongly urge those individuals who want to come out and create havoc and create crime, when you create a crime particularly a serious act like a stabbing or a shooting, that’s one person who goes to the hospital, one less doctor or nurse who has been taken away from someone who has COVID-19.
So I ask people to think about that, it goes back to personal responsibility. We are in a pandemic right now. So, to say that crime is up, I think I can anecdotally say that crime is not up, but we have had instances of crime, but we still have men and women who are out there doing great work and we have made several arrests in several of the crimes that have occurred over the weekend. I tell people all the time, there might be a lot businesses that are closed, we are not. The Rochester Police Department is open for business and if you’re out there creating a crime we will still come after you. So that’s one thing that we will continue to do, but I can’t stress enough that we are in a pandemic here.
The guidance as been for people to isolate for people to stay indoors and not have as much contact with the public. Practice social distancing, so that’ll be the message that we’re sending, we’re not at the point of arresting people, we’re not to the point that we’re fining people, but we’re strongly advising people to follow guidance.
AC: So you’re not seeing a drop in crime either?
LS: I think we’re at the norm where we typically see crimes occur.
AC: Locust Club, when I was talking to them earlier, they were saying they’d like to see some changes like wagons out in the community for arrests, outdoor processing. Is there any work in that direction?
LS: President Mazzeo and I have been joined at the hip in our messaging and I’ve reached out to him and said, anything that you think we can do better for the department as a whole, we both have an interest in this obviously. We both on the same team and so, yes, he does provide suggestions and we consider his suggestions the best for our members, whatever is best for our members I’m committed to do what I can to make sure they’re safe and that they can go out there and safely serve the public. We are talking about possibly standing up a wagon, we’re debating that and considering those things. We’re doing a lot in law enforcement, making decisions that we’ve never made before when it comes to operating practices and procedures.
Each and every day we think of doing something different and part of that is having conversations and trying to get to the point of not waiting until the last minute … We’re making decisions like eliminating roll calls, to ensure we don’t have maximum occupancy in the building to make sure we don’t have too many officers in the building. So we’ve done a lot of things. We’ve eliminated 2-badge patrols, which we’ve typically done before. But there’s one thing we must consider too and that’s officer safety. Officer safety is paramount and it’s my job to make sure the men and women go home every night and it’s also my job to make sure these men and women don’t contract COVID and prevent the spread of COVID and I’m going to do everything in my power to do that.
AC: General morale — how would you describe that in the department?
LS: The men and women are fighters. They know they have a job to do. This is a job that requires a higher calling – service over self. I would say morale is good in the department. There is a great dialogue between the union and I as well as with the members and the supervisors out on the road. Just last night, they had a barricaded gunman, arrested 2 individuals in a house, recovered some weapons. They’re going out there and doing exactly what we expect them to do. They’re not wavering.
They have a commitment to this community, they have a commitment to each other and they have a commitment to serving and I think that’s why they signed up for the job. I couldn’t be prouder in the way and fashion that they are, dealing with this pandemic that we’ve never seen before. They’re adapting, we’re adjusting, in many situations we’re overcoming and I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women in this department.
AC: Testing, do you have a enough? Could you use more?
LS: There are a lot of things that are out there right now in regards to the rapid testing and I’ve seen other things in other jurisdictions who have had a significant number of officers out at work and they have been receiving a rapid test so I think we have a good system that I think we just set up with the hospitals to hopefully assure that we have the appropriate number of tests for first responders as they develop symptoms or possibly develop symptoms. Is it a perfect system? Probably not, but we’re learning as we go, we’re getting better each and every day so I think the officers who do come down with symptoms, we advocate for them and I think people have been listening.
The one thing I talked about earlier is that dialogue that’s been taking place and I think there are protocols that have been put in place prior to something occurring whatever that something is. So right now I’m at that point where I can’t say it’s not happening, but one of the things that keeps me up at night is do we have enough PPE equipment, do we have enough, do we have enough this, do we have enough that to get us through this pandemic however long this pandemic is going to occur? That’s something we just don’t know right now, but my job is to put our department in the best position possible to go out and serve the community and that’s what I intend to do.