The state of Wisconsin has seen a spike in COVID cases since the beginning of September, and now has the country's third highest rate of new cases in the past week per capita, behind North Dakota and South Dakota. Police executives from Appleton, Green Bay, and Janesville told PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler how the recent surge in cases has impacted their agencies.

Source: New York Times


Key Takeaways

-- The spike seems to be caused by people letting their guard down. These police chiefs attribute the recent increase to more people attending large gatherings, and being less diligent about wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. The return of college students in some communities may also be contributing to the increases.

-- Police department precautions seem to be working. Even during the recent spike in the state, these police agencies haven’t seen an increase in the number of cases among their employees. They attribute that to continued diligence with protective equipment, keeping employees separated, and other public health precautions.

-- Dividing officers into separate cohorts to reduce contacts within the department has helped prevent the spread of COVID.  Officers look forward to the day when the department can be reunited as a whole, but the surge has made that impossible for now.

-- Sharing of information by the health department and having the resources to conduct contact tracing remain challenges.


Appleton Chief Todd Thomas

I think we’ve kind of gone back to the initial couple months, when there was a lot of fear and anxiety and people were extremely cautious. I think we went through a period of time when people may have let their guard down and started gathering and not wearing masks. I think that precipitated the spike that we’re seeing now in Appleton and northeast Wisconsin.

Chuck Wexler: Did businesses and schools reopen?

Chief Thomas: As soon as the Wisconsin governor’s stay-at-home order was lifted by the state’s Supreme Court, most of the restaurants and bars opened up. They tried to control the number of patrons and implement social distancing and masks, but obviously not everyone complied.

The majority of our public schools are completely virtual, not in-person classes. But a lot of our private schools are in-person. I think we’re starting to see more spread through our schools, especially through our colleges. As we’ve seen nationally, a lot of this has come from the 20 to 30 age group that has gathered and caused the spread to increase.

Wexler: Have you had many positive cases within the department?

Chief Thomas:  Less than 2% of our staff has tested positive. We do not have anybody currently positive, and thankfully the couple officers who had it are back and healthy. We have been really tight with our regulations. We’ve put a lot of practices and procedures in place, as well as an emergency staffing schedule. We think that has minimized COVID infections for us, compared to some other city departments. We’ve been thankful that it has not significantly impacted us yet.

Wexler: What is your emergency staffing schedule?

Chief Thomas:  At the beginning of the pandemic, we sat down with our union representatives and created a totally separate emergency staffing schedule. We reorganized all our officers. Schools weren’t in session, and we have 12 school resource officers. We reassigned them and our street crime unit.

We created four separate work teams. The cycle would be 7 days of work, then a built-in quarantine period of 14 days off. The same officers work with each other for 7 straight days on 12-hour shifts. Then they are off for 14 days to try to quarantine themselves as much as possible.

It worked out really well for us, and we made it through those first several months without anybody getting ill or even needing to be tested. It was really beneficial not only for our officers’ health, but also their mental wellness. They really enjoyed being home. A lot of the officers’ spouses work in healthcare or education and are struggling with dealing with virus. So it was also an opportunity to give them some family time for those 14 days.

Wexler: Are you enforcing public health regulations, such as crowd limitations, social distancing, and masks?

Chief Thomas:  We are not. We are taking an educational stance. Initially, we did take more of an enforcement approach. I think it caused us quite a bit of anxiety and anger towards us from parts of the community. So our officers were put in a pretty difficult spot.

Eventually we ratcheted that down and took a stronger stance that it was a health department issue. We will assist them, but enforcement should come from the health department or other officials. I wasn’t going to put my officers in that position.


Green Bay Chief Andy Smith

The whole city basically shut down at the very beginning, starting around the middle of March. Kids were all out of school, everybody was at home, and the streets were dead.  We had as many people working remotely as we could.

Early on, we had two cases in the department, which has 180 sworn officers and 237 total employees. As the spring and summer wore on, I think we saw everybody let their guard down a little bit. There was a lot less masking and social distancing going on.

Talking to the medical professionals, we’re definitely in a big spike now. We’re setting records for the number of daily cases. It definitely ramped up towards the end of September, and kept getting worse and worse.

The medical experts that I talk to believe something like 98% of this is caused by people getting together in groups at weddings, parties, bars, barbecues, and things of that nature.

Wexler: How is this impacting your department?

Chief Smith: As of today, we’ve had a total of five people, all sworn, who caught it. It was two at the very beginning and three this fall. We think most of them got it from a spouse or family member. All employees except one have returned back to work.

We’ve done a lot of things around the station to try to mitigate it. We have mandatory hand-washing when you enter the station. We cancelled all roll calls and sent them directly to their cars and on the street. We didn’t change our schedule, but many civilians and detectives are working from home. We’ve separated our station into three floors, and people aren’t allowed to go on another floor unless they have emergency business to be done. Masks are mandatory in the station and everyone has hand sanitizer. We’re pretty careful, and officers are doing a pretty good job with that.

We’ve even split up our trainees. Because COVID numbers are so high here, we have trainees and training officers driving in two separate cars in tandem wherever they go. It’s not ideal, but it keeps them separated.

When officers ride together in a car, they’re expected to be wearing a mask the whole time.

We have plenty of PPE. We have some disinfectant devices we use to ionize the inside of our cars between every shift, so every officer gets into a clean car. We’ve had little to no spread inside the department, so it seems like it’s coming from outside the department.


Janesville Deputy Chief Terrence Sheridan

When this first started, there were a lot of unknowns about COVID and how to handle it. Our biggest fear at that time was trying to keep our staff safe so we could still function as a police department.

Chief David Moore decided he was going to separate our department as much as possible. Janesville PD has 105 sworn officers and about 130 total employees. Our police department is a two-story building, and we all work in this building together. We separated the department by floors and created different sub-stations and work groups, some of which work at the police department, some of which work outside the police department, and we have some people working at home. Initially we were able to make a couple substations at our middle schools. We kept the same schedules but prevented the interaction here at the police department. We stopped meeting in person for briefings and held briefings and other meetings virtually, if possible.

As we started to learn more about COVID and better ways to protect ourselves, we started making changes. After the first couple months, we reintegrated two of our work groups back into patrol, because we were stretched pretty thin. At that time the numbers were going down, so it seemed like a good time to get some people back while still maintaining a lot of our separation. We still have virtually the same separation that we’ve had from day one.

The longer COVID goes on, the harder it is for both the public and the officers. We just met with the union the other day and they want to get back together. They recognize this probably isn’t the best time for us to break down these substations, because we’ve done pretty well with those and we’re seeing a spike in this area.

Everyone is anxious to try to get back to business as usual, but we have no plans to change that anytime soon. Our message to our officers has been that once people get vaccinated and we feel safe, we can come back together at that point. We’ll probably keep this setup well into the spring.

One of the biggest challenges from the beginning through to today is with the health department and the sharing of information about who has COVID, to protect the first responders. We’re not necessarily looking for the names of the people, but we want a warning system to keep the first responder safe. But the health department has been hesitant and there’s just not a lot of good information-sharing. They put out a lot of general statistical information, which does provide some useful information. They eventually did share information about positive cases by address, but that was not known to anyone unless we were dispatched there. That was better than nothing, but you always run the risk that the dispatcher doesn’t see the flag and pass along that information.

The health department just doesn’t have the staff to do thorough contact tracing, so that’s been a challenge here as well.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.