The outbreak of COVID-19 has changed nearly all aspects of daily life — including how police departments function. An essential function of society, there are concerns about how to keep police officers safe without heightening the risk to public safety.
The Riverhead News-Review recently interviewed police chief David Hegermiller to see how the pandemic has affected his department. His responses have been edited for space and clarity.
Riverhead News-Review: What are some of the challenges presented amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chief David Hegermiller: We’re at the point where you have to, as with everyone else, treat people like they have COVID-19 and be cautious with everyone you’re dealing with.
If we’re going on an aided case, an ambulance call, we’re making a conscious decision: who is the person going inside? Obviously, if we’re there and it’s a life or death situation, we’re going in. If it’s just a routine transport, we’re going to let the ambulance person go in.
NR: What other protocols have changed?
DH: Calls are down, and every time I go out it seems kind of quiet. In the past, we wouldn’t take a call over the phone but now we do. Not all calls — but if they meet the criteria we can. Incidents that don’t have to be investigated at the scene; straightforward, nonviolent crimes.
NR: Are all calls down? Are there any incidents that have spiked during the crisis?
DH: Looking at the March report, calls received were down by almost 200: 2,469 [in 2019] to 2,285. Domestics were down by 20, so that’s a big percentage, almost 25% down. We had 84 in [March 2019] and 64 in 2020.
You would think that it would go up, but as far as we know they haven’t, so that’s a good thing.
NR: Have any officers tested positive?
DH: We’ve had three employees test positive and two of them are back to work already.
NR: Glad they are on the mend. Has the department had to cut hours or anything like that?
DH: We’ve had full staffing and overtime is down. One of the issues we’re facing now is we’ve had some retirements and some more coming up. That whole process of hiring has come to a standstill. We did get two recruits out a week or two early for field training. But we’ve got half a dozen retirements this year, which out of 88 officers is a good chunk.
NR: Have you responded to calls to report people not abiding by social distancing guidelines or nonessential businesses still functioning?
DH: We definitely do deal with that. Right before they changed golf courses back to being essential, we were getting a lot of calls. We had several calls for construction and usually turn them right over to the state to get essential designation. It’s all about compliance. I think that will be the challenge going forward, as the weather gets better and better and people go to parks and beaches. We’re trying to keep a close eye on that.
There are several local domestic violence resources for residents. Anyone in need of help related to domestic violence can call the Suffolk County hotline at 631-332-9234 or text 844-997-2121 24/7. Residents can also reach out to local domestic violence organization The Retreat by calling their hotline at 631-329-2200.