Beach police departments give updates

Beaches police provided a snapshot of the highs and lows that have affected each department over the past year during the July Beaches Watch meeting. Atlantic Beach Police Interim Chief Vic Gualillo, Neptune Beach Chief Richard Pike and Jacksonville Beach Chief Gene Paul Smith detailed the challenges of the COVID crisis and the expected impact of the upcoming Republican National convention.
COVID has created a unique set of problems with safety and staffing in all three cities. The departments are working to maintain levels of service and anticipate issues that may arise in such unprecedented circumstances. Hurricane season, combined with the Republican National Convention bringing thousands of visitors to Jacksonville as the second wave of positive coronavirus cases continues to swell, creates a blurry outlook for the future.
“Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind. We’re being very cautious about having our officers wear PPE whenever appropriate and cleaning the police station at least once a day and disinfecting the common areas, and we’re all wearing masks inside the station to limit exposure to others,” said Gualillo.
Gualillo said they are maintaining daily communication with the city of Jacksonville as the second wave continues to surge. Pike said his department has felt the most impact from COVID, particularly when he lost half the department to quarantine. Other officers showed up to fill gaps in staffing and make sure there was no break in service.
“For the past four months, we’ve all been living and working in the COVID environment. We could not be where we are at without the support of our city leaders,” he said. “I recognize the shoulders that I stand on every day.”
COVID has slowed hiring, ordering, daily operations and normal calls for service, and resulted in a slower-than-average July 4 holiday. Pike said COVID impact has resulted in an uptick in suicide threats and attempts from March 1 to July 8.
Pike counted the meetings with city leaders as necessary with the constant flow of information between all Beaches cities and the city of Jacksonville, especially now that they are facing hurricane season head on.
“We’ve been hit three times in the last four years as you all know, so we’re preparing and getting ready. When you’re in the cone of influence, it’s game time. With RNC, still don’t know where we are at. We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said, noting eight officers are coming in from Ocala Police Department to provide assistance during RNC.
The convention, coming to Jacksonville Aug. 24 through 27, is presenting challenges for local law enforcement already sagging under the weight of the COVID crisis and a negative posture against the profession. The three Beaches police departments are working together to formulate a unified command structure ahead of the convention which will be held in Downtown Jacksonville. Overflow is expected to impact the Beaches, but to what degree remains to be seen.
“All three agencies are pulling together to make sure that we have a good public safety presence at any of the venues that may show up and continue to provide a great level of service to all of our citizens,” said Gualillo.
Now in his second year as police chief in Jacksonville Beach, Smith said the department has faced the death of a beloved member of the department followed by a hurricane, COVID and civil unrest, with anti-law enforcement postures throughout the country – and now the RNC.
“I hope there is nothing else coming. My staff is tired, as the other two staffs are. We respond every day and do our jobs but we are starting to fray a little bit. I worry about my people on the street every night when I go home with everything going on with COVID and police officers getting assassinated out in the street. I’m not even going to mention the dreaded 'H' word,” he said.
“I reflect on where we were all sitting last year at this time. It’s a strange new world. Having been through Sept. 11, we thought we’d seen it all, but little did we know that we were in for the challenge of our lifetime. We’ve encountered things that no police chief has ever encountered before as a profession and as a municipality also.“
To date, there has only been one positive case in the Jacksonville Beach Police Department of an officer who contracted the virus from a family member. Smith said staff is taking all the universal precautions to maintain health and safety of officers and community.
“We’ve either been good or lucky or both,” he said.
Looking ahead next month to the convention, Smith said he anticipates impacts including protests, domestic disturbances and tactical issues, including traffic. With mutual support, three departments are operating as one agency, one city.
“The problem herein lies that most planning for an event this size starts 18 months to a year out. We’ve had 66 days to pull this together. Everyone is scrambling. There’s not a whole lot of information,” said Smith. “The three Beaches are kind of doing some blind planning, anticipating what we think may happen, but the wonderful news is the three of us, and three city managers and three mayors, truly are working together to mutually support each other.
“I’ll be very honest. My sons are both first responders and if this keeps up, I don’t know if there is going to be a next generation. I don’t know if anyone would want to do this job with what is going on in some places in this country with the trajectory that’s happening now. That’s our professional challenge in the future and we need guidance form our citizens and what they want from us. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need the citizens to continue to support us. I don’t know where we’re going to be five years from now.”
Despite the obstacles, the departments are able to maintain resilience and face an uncertain future with training, capable officers, support from city leadership and the community.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest police chief in the country,” Smith said.