Whitehall police officers roll with changes during pandemic

KEVIN CORVO
kcorvo@thisweeknews.com
Whitehall police officer Tanner Williams wears a mask as he enters information into his computer during a traffic stop Aug. 31. Williams and other offices have had to get used to changes in their routines because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Police officers train for myriad scenarios during their time in academy, but policing during a pandemic nevertheless caught Whitehall's Brian Smith and Tanner Williams off guard.

Still, like the rest of the United States, they said they have adjusted to the COVID-19 coronavirus that, since mid-March, has upended daily life and established what is, at least for now, a new normal.

Smith and Williams each said they have become accustomed to the routines and procedures, but in the early stages of the evolving pandemic, very little was certain.

"(Contagion) was a concern for my wife (Anna) and me," said Williams, 26, whose second son, Elliot, was born Feb. 26.

At that time, the public was aware of the coronavirus, but no stay-at-home orders were yet in place.

Williams was on paternity leave when Gov. Mike DeWine ordered public schools to close after March 13, a move that was followed by a series of other closures and the issuance of conditional stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Williams said he offered to return to work, since it was unknown how deeply staffing levels might be affected by the coronavirus, but he was told to complete his paternity leave.

Williams returned to duty March 26, working his typical eight-hour shift from 3 to 11 p.m.

But April 5, Whitehall police changed from officers working five consecutive eight-hour shifts to working three consecutive 12-hour shifts, with four days off in between. Williams worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"After talking with my wife, we decided it was best that I not come home (between my 12-hour shifts)," Williams said. "So I packed up for a three-day trip when I was going to work."

The Williamses also have a 3-year-old son, Carson, at home.

Williams said the barracks-like lifestyle he had during April and May reminded him of his time in the Boy Scouts and the Army National Guard -- but he didn't have a family then.

"I took my sleeping bag and everything else I would need. ... I had been away from my family before, but not when my family was right across town.

"I thought about how close I was ... but (a visit) wasn't worth the risk."

Williams, along with Smith and occasionally other officers, took advantage of the opportunity to stay at Whitehall's parks and recreation facility at 721 Country Club Drive, adjacent to John Bishop Park.

The facility once was an armory for the U.S. Army Reserve.

"We had cots set up in there to sleep, and we had a place to shower and a kitchen," Williams said.

Smith, 37, also was apart from his wife during the 12-hour shifts that remained in place until May 31.

"We thought it was just a matter of time," Smith said about officers contracting COVID-19 -- but only a few officers have showed mild symptoms thus far.

Smith said his wife, Cassie, a private-practice attorney, was working more hours than usual in March in advance of the expected broader shutdown orders, so Smith also decided to remain away from home during the days he worked 12-hour shifts.

"We called each other, but both of us were working a lot then," he said.

Likewise, Williams visited with his family via video, he said, at the start or end of each shift.

"I would get off duty, take a shower and call home," he said.

Smith worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so Smith and Williams encountered each other only as each was starting or ending a shift.

The two occasionally found time to watch programs on a Roku that Williams hooked up at the makeshift accommodations.

"It was challenging," Williams said. "Carson did not like it. He'd say, 'Stay with me,' when it was time for me to go to work."

The officers had a dry-cleaning service while staying at the site.

"I didn't take anything home with me (that hadn't been cleaned)," Williams said.

After the department reverted back to traditional eight-hour shifts, Smith and Williams returned home -- but things aren't exactly back to normal.

"I still ask people to step outside when we need to go to homes and take steps back from people out in the public," Smith said. "I still find myself offering for a handshake -- sometimes I can't help it -- and have to remind myself it's not appropriate."

Williams said he continues practicing social distancing, too.

"Most people we encounter get it and understand," he said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo

Whitehall police officer Tanner Williams wears a mask as he enters information into his computer during a traffic stop Aug. 31. Williams and other offices have had to get used to changes in their routines because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.