With local officials repeatedly stressing the message that mask-wearing is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19 -- and even considering making it mandatory and enforceable by law -- the head of the Tulsa Police Department says officers don't always wear masks because covering their faces can interfere with their jobs.
"The reason why you don't always see our officers wearing masks is because they need to have that facial expression," Chief Wendell Franklin told reporters at a Wednesday press conference at police headquarters.
"They need people to understand exactly, when they tell a person to do something, that they are doing that. I don't want that obscured by a mask. I don't want anything misconstrued from officers when they are out on the scene giving orders," Franklin continued.
"They are mandated to wear them inside of the building when they meet for squad meetings, because, again, large gatherings, I don't want someone to have come from a wedding and then introduce that into the squad room, and then my entire shift is no longer, you know, useful out in the field," Franklin said. (Public Radio Tulsa has reported on photos posted to the department's social media accounts in recent weeks showing large, indoor gatherings of police officers not wearing masks or socially distancing.)
"They obviously have access to them on their person to wear at any time that they see the need to don that facial protection," Franklin said, adding that dispatchers are also not required to wear masks because of the potential for making them less intelligible over the radio.
"That's the reason why you don't see them more outwardly, but they are wearing them inside of buildings, inside of the uniformed divisions as they conduct squad meetings," Franklin said.
Asked by a reporter about municipal employees, including police officers, not consistently wearing masks, Mayor G.T. Bynum called it "a great question."
"That is something, actually, that I need to talk with our staff at the city about, as far as an overall policy," Bynum said. "You heard today just one example of the impact it can have on our organization and the ability of the city to serve, in a moment where you had one firefighter who went to a family event, came to the station, and ended up spreading it. And having to overnight shut down a fire station."
Earlier at the press conference, Tulsa Fire Chief Michael Baker described one fire station being closed for cleaning after a firefighter exhibited COVID-19 symptoms following his attending a wedding. A number of his colleagues have been placed under quarantine.
"Our ability to serve and protect the citizens of Tulsa is reliant on keeping our first responders healthy, the folks that are out working on our water lines and sewer lines and in our parks healthy," Bynum said. "So I think that would absolutely be a good policy for us to put in place at the city."
"I know that at City Hall, no one is allowed to walk even down a hallway without a mask on, so that should certainly apply to folks that are out in the field, as well," the mayor said.
At the press conference, Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart called the wearing of masks "selfless and kind," and a demonstration of caring for others in the community.
Bynum said that, given worsening numbers of COVID-19 locally and across Oklahoma, he has discussed the possibility of mandating masks with both Dart and Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Col. Lance Frye. The mayor said he doesn't believe that measure is currently needed, but he will implement a mandate if Dart concludes that one is necessary.
Michelle Brooks, communications director for the City of Tulsa, explained after the press conference that a current mask requirement policy applies to non-sworn municipal employees, but not to sworn employees like firefighters and police officers.