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With homeless and mental health services closed or limited, Spokane police officers have extra challenges

Lt. Steve Braun stands in the entry of the former bank building on Thursday at Riverside Avenue and Wall Street, the future home of the downtown Spokane Police precinct. Braun currently works at the precinct inside the Spokane Intermodal Center, which will move to the bank building in the future. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Lt. Steve Braun has a big job managing the Spokane Police Department’s downtown precinct, a job that got even bigger as the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Spokane.

Braun grew up in Spokane as a police officer’s son. He served in the Navy before heading back to Spokane to spend the next 20 years as a police officer.

He commands the police department’s behavioral health unit and the bomb squad, which he says is a “blast.”

So with all that on his plate, Braun already was managing a lot before COVID-19.

He initially heard about the virus like many other people did, by reading an article about the outbreak in China.

“I hoped that it wasn’t going to become the pandemic that it is,” Braun said, looking back.

For the first few weeks, Braun said he kept an eye on the spread of the virus abroad, gauged the atmosphere locally and did what he could to dispel any unnecessary worries among his officers and the public.

But as the virus landed in the United States, and King County became the epicenter of the outbreak on the West Coast, things began to change.

Braun normally focuses on case management, deciding how to spread out officers, monitor hotspot crime areas and maintain relationships with community stakeholders.

He’s still doing all of those things but with the added factor of coronavirus.

“Our No. 1 focus is being able to serve the public,” Braun said. “Hopefully, we can provide a calming delivery in interactions.”

In the downtown precinct area, referrals to local resources like behavioral health services or homeless shelters are a key part of police work, Braun said.

With the virus cutting shelter beds and ending outpatient care in person at Frontier Behavioral Health, police officers are limited in what they can offer people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. (Frontier, however, is maintaining phone-based outpatient care.)

“It limits our resources we can use when we’re doing outreach,” Braun said.

The coronavirus also has impacted how police enforce the city’s laws against camping on public property and sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks. Though there still is capacity in city shelters – meaning the laws can still be enforced – the court system isn’t equipped to handle low-level charges.

“We are going to encourage people to move along and use citation (or) arrest as a last resort,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger.

Braun said his officers are concerned for their families just like any other citizen, creating added stress.

“We’re trying to limit how we’re contacting any person that we may have to talk to,” Braun said. “More things via phone contact if we can.”

Officers are asking people to step outside when speaking with police so officers don’t have to enter as many homes or public places and can keep up social distancing, Braun said. The department still has some access to disinfectants, masks and gloves, despite national shortages. The department also has a plan in place to disinfect precincts and equipment if an officer falls ill with the virus.

With significantly fewer people out and about, Braun said increased criminal activity without that social accountability is “a concern.”

“Our hope is that people still are going to be responsible,” Braun said.

To alleviate some of that concern, Braun said they are planning more foot patrols in the downtown area.

“We’re going to be much more visible on foot in the downtown area,” Braun said.

As always, enforcement will be a last resort, and officers will continue to de-escalate situations to the best of their ability, Braun said.

“We’re dedicated to serving our community so we show up to work every day as optimistic as we can,” Braun said. “We still have a job that we’re privileged to do.”

Reporter Adam Shanks contributed to this story.

This report was changed on March 20, 2020 to indicate that Frontier Behavioral Health is continuing to provide outpatient services by phone.