AUSTIN, TEXAS – The funeral last month for Jorge Cabrera featured familiar tributes to a fallen officer. Cabrera's flag-draped casket sat at the front of the church, near a large replica of a police badge with black ribbon. The strains of a bagpipe accompanied the entry of a uniformed honor guard.
Cabrera, 42, was a ubiquitous figure in his hometown of Mission, Texas, serving a dozen years as a police patrol officer and traffic investigator. Hundreds paid their respects in person or watched his funeral online.
He didn't die in a crash or a shootout; he succumbed to COVID-19 on Aug. 24, after a 21-day struggle against the virus. Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said Cabrera may have been infected while escorting a prisoner.
In the seven months since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has emerged as the nation's deadliest police killer, felling far more officers than violence or accidents. It also has changed the way police do their jobs, and hampered trust-building measures at a time when many people have taken to the streets to condemn police brutality and racism.
"Given the current climate, community policing is even more important because it allows law enforcement to not have all their hours on the job devoted just to 'crime-fighting,' " said Wesley G. Jennings, a professor of criminal justice and legal studies at the University of Mississippi. "It allows them to get in the community, engage with the community."
But because of restrictions imposed by the pandemic, he said, "regularly scheduled activities where the police and the community would interact ... are not occurring."
In Washington, D.C., for example, community leaders and police officers concede that COVID-19 safeguards have slowed or impeded bridge-building activities in the Sixth District, an area that is predominantly Black.
"Community policing is definitely affected by COVID-19 because of the inability to have face-to-face contact," said the Rev. Dr. Lewis Tait Jr., minister of the Village, a church 5 miles east of the U.S. Capitol that was founded by Tait's father 60 years ago.
Before the pandemic, police officers convened at least monthly with clergy and neighborhood leaders, typically over breakfast. Since April, the meetings have been conducted via Zoom, which allows participants to talk but prevents the personal contact that helped them build real relationships.
"Sometimes you want to have that candid conversation," said Officer Jason Medina, community outreach coordinator for the Sixth District. "And by not being able to do that, it's kind of harder."
The pandemic also has changed policing in other ways. Some departments are declining to make arrests for minor crimes, restricting public access to police stations, allowing some officers and civilian employees to work from home and collecting crime reports via phone or e-mail instead of sending officers.
"You can't have a global pandemic like this and things not change," said Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon of the Austin Police Department.
Dallas Police Sgt. Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, said the changes have added barriers between officers and residents at a time when street encounters are more likely to be fraught. "You want to be attentive to the citizen, and that's a great part of community policing," he said. "But dealing with COVID right now, we're not able to sit around that kitchen table or living room and have those discussions with family members."
In Houston, officers posted at the department doors take temperatures of arriving employees. Those with fevers are denied entry and required to get tested. Officers and employees don full PPE — masks, goggles and gloves — when they meet somebody on a call and are required to keep their masks on inside headquarters, unless they're in their own space.
Residents in many cities have reported barefaced officers in their neighborhoods and participants in racial justice protests have lodged similar complaints, said the New York Times and other news outlets.
But Medina and several other officers said they always wear masks to protect themselves, the public and their families.
Despite the precautions, police departments have reported hundreds of positive cases, and many officers have died. Estimates of the total death toll vary, but the Fraternal Order of Police attributes at least 235 law enforcement deaths to COVID-19 based on media reports. The states with the highest numbers of coronavirus-related law enforcement deaths as of Sept. 30 were Texas (51), New York (35) and Louisiana (20), according to the organization.
The Officer Down Memorial Page Inc., a nonprofit organization, reported that 114 of the 208 line-of-duty deaths it has confirmed this year were caused by the virus, more than all other categories combined. The next largest category was gunfire, with 35 cases.