EDINBURG — Although the coronavirus pandemic has brought much of normal life to a standstill, Rio Grande Valley law enforcement officers find themselves doing the same job they’ve always done while enforcing a host of new regulations and facing the possibility of coming in contact with COVID-19 while on the job.
That was the case for Edinburg police officer Arielle Benedict Friday night. Between 10 p.m. and midnight Friday, Benedict responded to two dangerous calls: a potentially suicidal man trying to jump into traffic near Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, and another potentially suicidal man in Edinburg who was walking down the street in a bulletproof vest. The latter was described as likely armed and intoxicated by the person who reported him.
After a brief search, Benedict and other officers found that man in an Edinburg apartment complex, pacing inside an open door with a bulletproof vest on. Benedict saw a holster on the man’s hip and took cover behind her patrol car.
Officers drew their guns and ordered the man onto the ground. After a tense few minutes, the man complied and was detained by officers. The man didn’t have a gun in the holster, but officers couldn’t know that.
Benedict called it a seven out of 10 as far as danger goes.
“They’re very dangerous calls,” she said, calm and collected minutes after drawing her gun and shouting commands at the man.
Despite that, Benedict says the possibility of encountering COVID-19 in the line of duty concerns her even more than a call like that. As a volunteer on the Edinburg Police Department’s 12-person coronavirus response team, Benedict will be expected to respond to calls that involve someone infected with the virus.
“The coronavirus is something we have no control over,” she said. “We all have kids, no one wants to bring it home to their kids. No one wants to put their lives in danger, but it’s the same concept as a group of firefighters running into a burning building. You have to do it, you have to do the job.”
Benedict said she and the other 11 officers on the team received special training and equipment for the assignment.
“We have at least three officers per shift that are on the team. We’ve been issued hazmat suits, masks, goggles, gloves, and we also did training with Chief (Shawn) Snider from the fire department,” she said.
Other COVID-19 prevention practices are being used throughout the department.
“We are ordered to clean our stations before and after every use, so before we even get into the unit, we have to wipe down the entire unit,” Benedict said. “Once we do that, we have to wear gloves at every single contact, so I have gloves in my pocket and I also have latex gloves here in the car, and if we go to a call we have to put our gloves on.”
Benedict responded to other calls Friday evening that were less perilous than the man in the bulletproof vest, but they were more colored by new regulations prompted by the pandemic.
A noise complaint in a neighborhood where a family was barbecuing resulted in no more than a friendly conversation about the Pittsburgh Steelers. There were less than 10 people at the party and they all said they lived at the home.
Another conversation with two pedestrians ended the same way. The two women were just walking back from work and Benedict left them to it after a brief conversation.
Benedict says many interactions after the curfew begins end that way, and she hasn’t cited anyone for any coronavirus-related offenses yet.
“I believe, as an officer on the road, that people are being helpful,” she said. “They’re listening to the rules. Most of the people on the road right now are there out of necessity. They’re first responders or they’re working at a grocery store that opens earlier, they’re construction workers still working, so we’re not really seeing that many people on the road.”
Benedict says that many people are still adjusting to it or have a legitimate reason to be on the road and officers take that into account when they interact with people after 10 p.m.
“We’re enforcing curfew, and we’re issuing citations as needed, but we’re not really trying to ruin people’s lives over a thousand dollar citation, we’re here to educate people,” she said. “If it gets to the point where someone is intentionally, aggressively not following orders, and is creating a dangerous situation, then of course we’re going to issue that citation or make an arrest.”
Adhering to the new regulations means that a Friday night shift looks different than it usually does. Bars and restaurants also appear to be complying, and that shows.
“An ordinary Friday night, the roads are busy up until 2 in the morning, at least,” she said. “It’s very different, there’s no one on the road.”
The pandemic and the panic surrounding it have generated some different calls for the department, Benedict said.
“At first, when people were panic-buying, we were getting calls to stores over people fighting over a product, but I think that the grocery stores have gotten it under control now,” she said. “During the curfew, we’ve noticed more disturbances with families within the home.”
Benedict said there’s also been a slight uptick in calls about suspicious people walking around. She says it feels more like summer than spring: schools out, businesses are closed and people don’t have much to do.
“The kids are out of school, parents are not working, most of them, so people are bored, they’re going to walk around,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just someone taking a walk at 3 in the morning … but other times it really is somebody with intention to burglarize a home or a car.”
Benedict said she’s glad people are adapting to the new rules and she hopes it continues.
“We want the public to know that we’re here to help, but if you’re not following the law and it’s becoming dangerous, we’re going to issue a citation,” she said. “So far the city has really come together. Everybody’s doing their part by staying inside.”