'Heightened sense of anxiety' as police face COVID-19 threats

Anxiety rises among police

The head of the Canadian Police Association says he is worried about the increasing number of COVID-19 threats officers face while responding to calls.

"During this particular pandemic there is a very much heightened sense of anxiety," said Tom Stamatakis in Vancouver. "That just goes through the roof."

There have been reports across the country of people claiming they have the novel coronavirus and intentionally coughing on officers. Police forces are warning such behaviour can be considered an assault on a peace officer.

A 24-year-old man from Coquitlam, B.C., was charged after allegedly coughing towards three officers during an arrest on Monday.

A 59-year-old man allegedly coughed into the faces of two Mounties in Wetaskiwin, Alta., on the weekend when they responded to a disturbance call. He was also charged.

Two days earlier, RCMP in Flin Flon, Man., said a 16-year-old boy coughed into an officer's face while making references to COVID-19. It's not believed the teenager had the virus, but the officer was forced to self-monitor as a precaution.

Ottawa police charged a 33-year-old man last month after someone spit on officers telling them he was COVID-19 positive.

A number of Mounties in Nova Scotia have also reported that they have faced threats of being coughed on by people claiming to have the virus.

Police are already facing unique pressure on the front lines of the pandemic, Stamatakis said.

While the general population is told to self-isolate, officers are heading out each day to interact with people in uncontrolled situations.

"There have been a number of events where people have acted out and threatened, if you will, that they are contagious or they have COVID," said Danny Smyth, Winnipeg's police chief.

Smyth said police there are dealing with each case differently, but such threats can result in a charge of public mischief.

Officers being spat at is not unique to the pandemic, said Catherine Fortin, an RCMP spokeswoman. But it now represents an even greater safety concern.

"The threat to transmit the COVID-19 virus is a threat to the well-being and health of RCMP officers," Fortin said in an email.

"This is a criminal offence."

Precautions are being taken. Operators with 911 are asking callers if there's any threat of COVID-19 before officers are dispatched. However, Stamatakis said, in many cases there isn't the time in emergency situations to determine if officers are truly safe from the virus.

"We often don't know anything about the people we are interacting with," Stamatakis said. "And we are typically interacting with them in an uncontrolled environment."

Police services are enacting more stringent protocols around personal protective equipment. Not every police service has access to a lot of supplies, Stamatakis said, and individual officers don't always have time to put the gear on.

"You don't have the luxury of making sure you are properly equipped because things can unfold in a dynamic way."

Edmonton police officers were called to a transit bus this week after there was an altercation between passengers. Police said one of the passengers repeatedly coughed on the bus driver and on transit peace officers before saying he had tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Monday, nine Toronto Police Service members had tested positive for COVID-19. Police forces in Windsor, Ont., Ottawa and Vancouver, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police, have also had cases of infected members.

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