Health and safety: Police shift priorities as crisis grows

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

In this March 16, 2020, photo an NYPD officer wearing a protective face mask monitors the outside of the NYU Langone Hospital Emergency room entrance in New York. Brooklyns district attorney announced Tuesday, March 17, that because of the crisis his office is declining to prosecute low-level offenses that dont jeopardize public safety. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Police officers in Fort Worth and Denver have stopped arresting people for some low-level crimes. The district attorney in Brooklyn is declining to prosecute them. And many courthouses across the U.S. are closing their doors, delaying trials and canceling jury duty, as the coronavirus disrupts even the most fundamental pillars of American life.

The disease, known as COVID-19, has the potential to profoundly change law enforcement and jurisprudence in the U.S. Police departments are shifting resources and adjusting priorities in an attempt to maintain public safety while doing their best to prevent infection among officers and suspects. Courts that have stayed open are relying more on video for arraignments and other proceedings. One federal judge Monday took the extraordinary step of letting a juror deliberate from home when he wasn't feeling well.

As the crisis grows, some police departments are starting see their ranks get sick. Two New York City police officials have been diagnosed, and a Manhattan precinct was forced to bring in reinforcements Wednesday after an officer tested positive and about 30 other officers called in sick.

"Every police department has been advised to expect people to get ill,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “You're talking about a public-facing agency.”

Armed with masks, gloves and hand sanitizier, cops are being advised to keep their distance from others when possible. Some departments are cutting public access to police stations and handling non-emergency calls over the phone instead of dispatching officers. Others are staggering staff to prepare for when their force gets sick.

In Philadelphia and Chicago, parking officials said they won't issue tickets unless there's a public safety risk like a blocked fire hydrant or intersection.

When courts are open, some defendants are turning up in protective gear. Pras Michel, a former member of the hip-hop group Fugees, showed up to a Monday child support hearing in Manhattan in a full hazmat suit.

“This pandemic requires us all to think differently,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who told his staff not to seek pretrial detention for anyone charged with non-violent felonies or misdemeanors.