HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Police Department is dealing with a huge spike in officers quarantined after exposure to COVID-19.
On May 1, HPD had 41 officers in quarantine. A month later on June 1, there were 54. The number increased to 207 officers by Monday. Of those, 178 tested positive. Chief Art Acevedo said none are seriously ill and their absence is not affecting police response, at least not yet.
The increase comes just weeks after large police reform protests in Houston, while COVID-19 cases skyrocketed across the state simultaneously. Acevedo suggests re-opening has more to do with the HPD coronavirus spike than protest exposure.
"We opened up the state very quickly, especially bars and, you know, I can't control what people do off duty," Acevedo said. "Then we had the protests. I would venture to guess... the protests went on all over the country and in most cities they haven't seen the uptick that we've seen here."
The Houston Police Officer's Union doesn't share the chief's optimism.
"We saw a huge spike in cases right after the protest," HPOU President Joe Gamaldi told ABC13. "We absolutely support the right to peacefully protest, but going into large crowds is not following the best medical advice. I just don't believe reasonable people think this wasn't caused by the protests and certainly that's not what our officers believe."
Gamaldi said officers who need worker's compensation care are receiving it and officers are getting the assistance from HPD they require.
Acevedo hears the concerns about his own exposure to the virus. He was seen frequently during the protests without a mask in the midst of massive crowds.
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"How in the world I didn't get COVID is beyond me," he said. "I've tested negative with the actual one up the nose. I'm actually going to go again tomorrow."
The chief said he's not experienced any coronavirus symptoms.
Acevedo wore a mask during the interview at HPD headquarters on Tuesday.
He said all officers should be masked, as well, when interacting with the public per department policy. As for other police policies, the ones marchers wanted to change, Acevedo acknowledged it's not the first conversation these days.
"Well, the attention has shifted with this momentarily, right?"
The chief knows demands for change haven't gone away.
Acevedo continues to push for state and national changes, telling ABC13, "We are going to continue to push hard to ensure that the Congress and state legislatures, which is really the key, it's got to be statewide and nationwide reform that impacts 50 States and 18,000 police departments.We have got to have the Congress and state legislatures work on rules of engagement and reform that impacts 50 States and 18,000 police department. If not we're going to be having this conversation again next summer and the summer after that."
But what about local change?
Acevedo said he thinks the mayor's task force will be surprised to see how HPD operates, but he hinted he is already looking at changing discipline rules in the HPD union contract next year and suggested changes sooner, before the mayor's reform task comes back. He didn't give any details about the rules.
So far there has been no change in the way the department releases body camera video or a public release of an audit on HPD's narcotics squad after the disastrous Harding Street raid.
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