For today’s Daily COVID-19 Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Yonkers, NY Police Commissioner John Mueller and Newark, NJ Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.

Both cities were hit hard by the first COVID wave in the New York City area last spring, and are now responding to the recent case increase. They discussed how they’ve changed their operations, and described their plans for offering COVID vaccines to their workforce.

Yonkers Police Commissioner John Mueller

We’re currently getting hit pretty hard in the Police Department. I think we’ve crested in the past couple days and are starting to come around. We have 47 officers who have tested positive in this last wave.

We’re doing okay with officers returning to duty. The average time to return is about 14½ days. Back in March, it was about 20 days.

We went back to one-officer cars, which we think is probably one of the most effective strategies. We moved to single-officer cars in April to try to reduce transmission. When that wave stopped, we went back to normal operations, and there was no one infected for months. Then we saw an uptick in mid- to late-November, and that’s when we shifted back to one-officer cars. It’s not ideal for public safety in a place like Yonkers, but it’s essentially like a wagon train. There are two cops who would’ve been in a car together in normal circumstances, and now one is following the other from job to job. They still stick together, but in separate cars.

We also went back to restricting deployment. So if we have nine extra officers in the first precinct and need four more in the fourth precinct, we would normally send officers from the first precinct to the fourth. But we locked that down. It’s more expensive, but it reduces exposure quite a bit.

Chuck Wexler: What day-to-day precautions are you taking when employees come into work?

Commissioner Mueller: We take temperatures before people come into the building. We try to limit the number of people inside the building writing reports. We’ve invested in equipment like air cleaners that have shown they can help limit the virus and take it out of the air in areas that are somewhat confined. We have socially distant roll calls, often outside.

In New York and Westchester County, where Yonkers is located,  we get an updated list of people who have tested positive. We send that to our communications division, who enter it into the computer. So if officers have to respond to somewhere where there’s a positive case, they know about it, and can be extra careful.

We’re also doing desk appearance tickets in the field, because we realize there’s an opportunity for exposure if we’re transporting someone from the scene of an arrest to central booking, then processing and maybe lodging them. So we’ve shifted gears and are handling low-level arrests by issuing desk appearance tickets at the scene, unless it’s a top offender. 

Wexler: Do you know when officers might receive the vaccine?

Commissioner Mueller: What we’re hearing from the New York State vaccination program is that there will be multiple phases. Phase one does not include law enforcement. It’s healthcare workers, EMS, long-term facility workers, and long-term facility patients. First responders other than EMS fall under phase two.

The state expects to get about 170,000 doses on or about December 15, but it’s unlikely the state will reach phase two with that initial inventory.

Obviously, the sooner, the better. I’d be the first in line to take it, because it’ll help us quite a bit.

I was very encouraged by the Operation Warp Speed press conference, where high-level executives from CVS, Walgreens, and other large pharmacies throughout the country said they have the ability to move this. And the drug companies like Pfizer and Moderna have done a great job getting themselves positioned to get the vaccine distributed.

If I don’t have my officers vaccinated by the end of January, I think I’ll be disappointed.

Wexler: Will the vaccine be voluntary for officers?

Commissioner Mueller: I think it’s going to come down to individual preference. We’re going to follow recommendations from the CDC and FDA, and get out that information as best we can.

The vibe I’m getting in the Yonkers PD is that most people will take it.

We’re not going to force anyone to take the vaccine if they don’t want it. But for their sake and their family’s sake, we’re going to strongly encourage it.

Wexler: Have you seen any changes in crime this year?

Commissioner Mueller: We’re up in a couple categories. The most concerning is homicides and shooting incidents. We’re doing the best we can to keep that situation under control.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that COVID has a lot to do with that, though it possibly could. In general, it’s bail reform and “raise the age.” We’re seeing a lot of guys under the age of 18 who we’re arresting two or three times carrying loaded guns, and they’re going to family court and are released right away. How many times are we going to arrest a kid with a loaded gun before there’s a tragedy? That’s a big concern for us.

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose

We had 180 police officers infected between March and June, and six have died from it.

Since October 1, we’ve had 50 police officers go out with COVID.

We immediately did a lot. We changed our hours. We have a 4-on/2-off configuration with 8-hour shifts. We met with the unions and started a Pitman schedule, with 12-hour shifts and two days off. We cancelled vacations.

We went to telephone reporting for stolen autos and thefts to minimize contact. We suspended street cleaning, towing, and parking tickets, as well as moving violations unless they’re very significant hazards.

We started a COVID-19 response unit to work around the clock. They go around to do testing. They also sanitize each police facility twice a week. We sanitize police cars every day.  

We do random testing. If someone comes back positive, we test their partners or their squad. We’ve been doing that since October 1, and that’s worked out well.

New Jersey let 2,000 people out of prison early. Our homicides are equal to last year and crime is down 7%. But we see a 14% increase in nonfatal shootings. We attribute that to gatherings over the summer, because we’ve seen 51 more multiple-victim shootings than last year.

We saw an uptick in domestic violence, and brought in some social workers we employ. They assisted the special victims unit.

Wexler: What about the vaccine and its availability in your agency?

I surveyed my 1,100 police officers about the vaccine. So far about 323 have said they’d volunteer to take it. I think when people start getting it and there’s no reaction to it, a lot more people will want it.

I’m told we’ll be able to do it probably either the last week of December or the second week of January. The first tier to receive the vaccine will be hospital workers, and then we’ll be in the second tier.

Wexler: Will you take the vaccine?

Director Ambrose: Yes, I will. I’m encouraging my officers to get the vaccine and will get it myself for them.  I’ve attended six officers’ funerals and seen 80-year-old mothers burying their sons. I’m all for the vaccine and will be the first one in line when it comes.

Wexler: Is Newark being hit hard by COVID right now?

Director Ambrose: The mayor is very stringent here, and we just had a lockdown for 10 days. We saw the infection rate subside significantly.

We’ve had about 700 people lose their lives to COVID here since March. We aren’t seeing as many people dying now, but a lot of people are being infected.

The police department, fire department, and code enforcement have a team that goes out every night. In the last 10 days, we cited 65 businesses for violating the governor’s executive order. So we’re strict with that, and the police department is playing a role in enforcement.

Wexler: Are you giving your employees any advice about activities around the holiday season?

Director Ambrose: Yes. Usually we have precinct parties and unit parties. I’m asking them to do it on Zoom. If they want to have an office party, it can be no more than 10 people. We’re cancelling all the major parties that usually would occur.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.