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What it’s like to be a Chelsea cop in the age of coronavirus

Chelsea Police Officer Joseph Santiago, on patrol recently, said he wears a mask whenever he interacts with a member of the public.
Chelsea Police Officer Joseph Santiago, on patrol recently, said he wears a mask whenever he interacts with a member of the public.Blake Nissen/For The Boston Globe

CHELSEA — It’s the first call of Joseph Santiago’s shift, and he is searching for a woman who said she was attacked by her sister after getting out of the shower.

The patrolman drives to the address given to him over the radio for the disturbance. No luck: It’s a shuttered corner store. A metal covering is pulled down over its entrance.

He goes to the back of the building. There he finds a small apartment. He knocks on the door. Multiple people are home. They don’t know anything about a domestic disturbance. A middle-aged woman, however, feels ill. She tells him she feels like she has the flu. Police officers ask if she wants them to call an ambulance, telling her an officer will wait with her until it arrives. She declines the offer.

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As with many interactions nowadays, Santiago thinks, but does not say: “I don’t want to get sick.”

Patrolling this tightly packed, blue-collar community now carries with it a new existential dread. Chelsea officials say the city has the highest per capita rate of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, and Santiago, a 43-year-old who lives in East Boston with his wife, three kids, and English bulldog puppy, says he treats every member of the public he encounters on the job as if they have COVID-19.

Chelsea Police Officers helped a suspect into the back of a "paddy wagon."
Chelsea Police Officers helped a suspect into the back of a "paddy wagon."Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

His radio squawks again: another possible location for the alleged victim in the domestic dispute.

It’s a few houses away from the shuttered bodega. The woman who called 911 lives there, a nondescript residential building, but is nowhere to be found.

A third address comes from dispatch: This one’s on a different street, a short drive way.

There, Santiago finds the alleged victim. After the fight with her sister, with whom she lives, she walked to her friend’s home.

There are bloody cuts under one of her eyes.

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Santiago speaks with her in Spanish near the building’s front steps. She tells him her version of the confrontation. She declines transportation to a hospital and eventually says she will not pursue a restraining order.

Santiago drives back to the home where the violence is alleged to have occurred. The other sister is there. She acknowledges grabbing her sister, but says her sibling got in her face and also grabbed her. Ultimately Santiago determines that this woman was the aggressor in the situation and places her under arrest for assault and battery.

Cleaning supplies are kept in patrolman Joseph Santiago's car.
Cleaning supplies are kept in patrolman Joseph Santiago's car. Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

He then waits for a police wagon to transport her to the station — new department policy says people who are arrested shouldn’t go back to the station in the cruiser.

The wagon shows up and the driver pops out. He’s wearing a helmet with a face shield. The woman is walked to the back of the wagon as neighbors crane their necks in windows to catch a glimpse of the commotion.

About 40,000 people call Chelsea home. Geographically, the city is small; about two square miles wedged in between Everett and Revere.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the city hard. As of Tuesday night, there were 618 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the city. Twenty-three city deaths, including at least eight from the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, have been linked to the disease.

“We believe that Chelsea does have the highest rate of infection per thousand persons than any community in the Commonwealth,” said Chelsea City Manager Thomas G. Ambrosino in an e-mail.

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In nearby Boston on Tuesday, authorities announced a police officer died from complications of COVID-19.

Like every other aspect of local life, the pandemic has changed the day-to-day of Chelsea police officers.

Roll calls, which are briefings for officers that occur at the beginning of shifts, stopped in mid-March. Now, officers are e-mailed information that previously would have been conveyed in the roll call, according to Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes. The majority of reports are currently being written and filed from cruisers, not in the station, he said.

A court summons is the preferred response for crimes that are not violent nor serious, said Kyes.

Kyes has also beefed up the patrol division, adding officers who were working in units like community service and school resource.

Only two of its 111 sworn officers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. One is back on the job, and the other is expected to return in coming days.

Kyes said the mood within the department is “pretty good,” but he also conceded there is a level of anxiety linked to the pandemic. He thought his officers were more worried about bringing the virus home to their families than getting sick themselves.

“It’s something new, they’re learning a lot of this on the fly,” he said.

Recently, arrests are way down. Kyes said Chelsea police are now averaging about one arrest every 24 hours. Before the pandemic, the average was three or four arrests, he said.

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Santiago prefers busy shifts. Slow shifts mean there is more time for the gravity of the pandemic to sink in, he said.

Then there are the masks. Santiago puts on a mask any time he interacts with the public. He says he has gotten used to it, but there are times when he finds his mask, which prior to the outbreak would have been most often associated with the building trades, to be irritating. He occasionally fidgets with his.

On this day, Santiago’s shift starts with some terrible New England weather. It’s gray and cold and the rain is coming down in sheets. He acknowledges the adage of rain being a policeman’s best friend, but adds a caveat.

“What happens in the rain? People stay inside," he said. "What happens inside? People get in fights.”

Santiago is in his second year as a Chelsea police officer. Previously, he worked as a cop in Shirley and New Hampshire. He grew up in a large Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn, the youngest of seven siblings. His father and his oldest brother were New York City police officers. He thought about trying to join NYPD, but his wife, an Eastie native, was not too keen on the idea of moving to New York.

"I was raised into this," he said of his job.

He misses some aspects of New York, like the food. When he’s asked where can he get a pizza slice in Greater Boston that compares to his hometown, he initially scoffs, then reconsiders.

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"Maybe Regina's Pizza," he said. "Maybe."

The pandemic has Santiago swearing off takeout. He finds the idea of eating food prepared by someone else in the middle of this public health emergency to be unsettling. Coffee gets a pass, however. About halfway through the shift, he goes to a 7-Eleven and gets a large cup, black with two sugars.

The crisis has changed Santiago’s life in other ways. His kids’ activities have been upended. He understands the restlessness brought on by shelter-in-place. He wants to be able to go to a barbecue. He recently watched the entire new season of “Ozark” in three days.

“You can only binge Netflix for so long,” he said.

About an hour after Santiago’s arrest of the woman, another call. A boyfriend and girlfriend are loudly arguing. It’s not Santiago’s call, but he goes to the address, essentially acting as backup. The girlfriend, who tells police she has tested positive for coronavirus, places a bag that includes toiletries down on the steps of her building for the boyfriend, who might be drunk. Police tell her to stay in her home, to stay quarantined. The boyfriend takes the bag, and eventually heeds the suggestions of police that he leave.

Toward the end of his shift, Santiago drives his cruiser to parking lot in the shadow of an elevated span of Route 1. There, he chats with his fellow patrolman and friend Gilberto Vargas.

They talk about coronavirus. Santiago mentions he needs a haircut, another previously straightforward task complicated by the pandemic. Vargas talks about a recent arrest he made. Someone who was known to have a drinking problem had allegedly punched someone else. A foot chase ensued. At some point, the individual who was arrested told police he had coronavirus. They wonder whether the claim is true.

A little more than hour to go before the end of Santiago’s shift, a mother calls police about her son. He is panhandling for cigarettes and she is upset. When Santiago arrives, a handful of police are already there, speaking with a man next to a bus stop that is outside a tall, brick housing development

Santiago hangs back, maybe 30 feet from the bus stop. Other officers have already engaged the man in conversation.

Two officers go into the brick building to speak with the mom, who eventually comes outside, wearing a medical mask. She alludes to her son having past drug problems, indicating she does not want him to relapse. She also announces that she heard someone on the building’s sixth floor had caught coronavirus.

The mother and son eventually go back inside. As one of the officers walks back to his cruiser, he strips off his gloves, and squirts hand sanitizer into a palm.

Shortly after, Santiago goes back to the station and wipes down his cruiser with disinfectant. He plans to go home and immediately take a shower.

The risk of contracting coronavirus, Santiago said, “it’s always there.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.