PERF spoke with police chiefs from some of the Massachusetts cities with the highest rates of COVID infection about how the pandemic has progressed in their communities and measures they have taken over the past six months. Click here to read latest report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.


Key Takeaways

-- COVID precautions in police agencies seem to be working. The police chiefs reported that there has been a relatively limited number of positive tests within their departments, especially since the initial wave in the spring. They attribute that to the precautions that have been in place since March and April.

-- It’s important to reach out to immigrant communities with public health guidance and to encourage testing. Immigrants can be harder to reach and may be reticent to engage with any government or government-related entities, including testing centers. To reach these populations, law enforcement agencies should connect with local community leaders.

-- Agencies are preparing for the possibility of another wave in the fall and winter. They expect to be better prepared if another wave comes, because many policies and procedures are already in place, staffing plans have been developed, and they are stockpiling PPE.


Chelsea Chief Brian Kyes

When things started ramping up in mid-March and into April, all this was new to all of us, including our operational response, how we would run the department, how we would interact with the public, and how we would handle calls for service. It was a lot of learning on the fly and a lot of growing pains. Massachusetts chiefs coordinated with each other and shared information about how we were doing business.

We’re not doing badly now, considering where we were. Chelsea was used to 100 new positive cases per day. Now we have an average of about 12. The other night we had 25 and the night before that we had 4, so there’s a huge range.

The number of people who have died – 152 – has stayed the same over the last two months. We know of 3,500 people who have been infected.

We have a significant undocumented population, and I know a lot of people did not get tested for fear of the government’s involvement. So the actual number of cases is likely higher than 3,500. To conduct outreach to these communities, we contacted trusted community leaders, who in turn encouraged people in the community to get tested. Those leaders let everyone know that there’s no federal government involvement, and they won’t be asked for any information beyond what’s needed to notify them if they’re sick.

I have to give kudos to the state, including the Governor, the Department of Public Health, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Public Safety. They’ve been excellent. They have calls with hard-hit communities once or twice a week, asking what we need.

We have 110 cops in Chelsea, and 10 got sick, five of them early on. We tried to find a common denominator, but it was really fairly scattered. Then around June 1, when things started opening up more in the state, people were starting to let their guard down. That’s even true in policing. I’d see officers out working details without a mask. We were getting criticized when the public saw officers without masks, so we had to get everyone on the same page about that.

Then about a month ago, five officers got sick in a two-day span. Again we saw no common denominator. In four of the five cases, the officers’ entire families got infected. The officers’ symptoms were mild, but they continued testing positive, even beyond two weeks. They wanted to come back to work, but we require two negative tests before they’re allowed to return. Their average time out was 30 days. It was a challenge having them out for that period of time.

I think we’ve all learned a lot across the state and across the country. Social norms have adjusted. Mask wearing has quickly become the norm. People aren’t really dining out unless they’re outside. We’re careful about overcrowding at schools and supermarkets. If you’re standing in public or walking down the street and someone comes towards you, you move away. That seems to be flattening the curve and driving numbers down, at least from what I’ve seen in Chelsea. I hope that if we all adhere to those practices, we’re ready if another surge comes and can beat it down faster than we did in March, April, and May.


Lawrence Chief Roy Vasque

Lawrence is about six square miles, with about 85,000 people on the books and additional people who may not be counted in those statistics. So it’s a tightly congested area, and we think that’s a big factor for our high rate of COVID infection in Lawrence. We’re not the suburbs, where everyone is spread out. People are on top of each other, and, particularly in our immigrant communities, a lot of family members live together.

At the beginning, police departments did a lot of learning from each other. We’ve all shared information and tried to learn from each other to keep our men and women safe – everything from masks to policies and procedures.

We had about eight cases among officers right out of the gate. We believe those were all the result of their contact off the job. For example, one officer got it from her husband, who got it at work at a local jail. We drove home the message about precautions that officers should be taking at home, and now we haven’t had a case in three or four months.

We strategized for worst-case scenarios, such as 40 officers suddenly going out sick. Everything from changing hours to collapsing units was considered. Then we were waiting to see how it played out.

We put a number of policies and procedures in place, including closing down the station to outside civilians, mandating masks in the station, limiting station access to one way in and one way out, and creating a decontamination station that was mandatory for the officers coming in. We provided officers with full PPE to engage the public. A lot was put in place to try to keep everyone safe, but it was a steep learning curve. Now we are prepared for a second wave, with policies and procedures in place and PPE stockpiled.

We tried to reach out to those in our immigrant population who may not trust the police. We used Spanish radio and television. And we worked with community leaders and church groups who could get the message out, including on social media. We tried to get the word out about masks and other services.

Our cases have slowed down, but we’re preparing for the possibly of another go-around.


Nantucket Chief William Pittman

I think the fact that we’re considered a “red” community (high rate of COVID) is a statistical anomaly. The rate is based on the census population, not the real population. In the summer we have 60,000 people on the island. Even if we didn’t get that high this summer, I’m sure it was still 50,000. But they calculate the rate based on our official population of 11,000.

In March, we immediately recognized the unknown here and pushed for travel restrictions to the island. We were unable to get the state to go along with that, but we were able to essentially slow it down by implementing a local construction ban. That stopped most people who would come over every day on the ferries, who I think would have been a primary source of COVID transmission early on.

We had a relatively low number of cases almost all through the summer. A lot of the people who tested positive had just traveled here from New York, Florida, or some of the other states with higher rates of infection.

Suddenly, a couple weeks ago we started getting more cases. A vast majority were in our immigrant community, many of whom are in the landscaping business and who work, travel, and live together. We worked with informal leaders, who we’ve been working with for years, to encourage anyone who might be infected to get tested. 200 to 300 people started showing up at the hospital per day to get tested, which almost overwhelmed the facility.

Our cases have gone back down, so hopefully it was just a momentary blip. We are concerned about this fall when the restaurants that stay open go indoors.

Because of things we did back in February and March, the police department has not had a single case among our officers or support staff. We hire 100 seasonal workers. A little over half are lifeguards and the others are parking enforcement and community service officers. Many live in dormitory-style housing, which was a concern. We were able to secure additional housing so that we would have only one person per room. And we implemented a testing protocol to test each seasonal employee once every 14 days. Through the summer we only had two positive tests come back, one of which we believe was a false positive.

We restricted access to the station and hold roll calls outdoors. That’s still in place, and I remind everyone every week that we haven’t relaxed our standards.


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.