Thursday, October 01, 2020

'A heart of gold:' First California police officer killed by covid-19 inspires kindness

Apr 21. 2020
Santa Rosa Detective Marylou Armer, 43, died on March 31 from complications of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She was the first police officer in California to die of the virus. (MUST CREDIT: Handout photo by Mari Lau)
Santa Rosa Detective Marylou Armer, 43, died on March 31 from complications of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She was the first police officer in California to die of the virus. (MUST CREDIT: Handout photo by Mari Lau)
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By  The Washington Post · Meryl Kornfield · NATIONAL, HEALTH, COURTSLAW 

When Marylou Armer saw a traumatized child, small and scared, without hesitation, she bent down on her hands and knees.

The child had allegedly been sexually assaulted, and Armer, a career police detective in Santa Rosa, California, had been called to investigate. Slowly, she collected her interview while still providing needed emotional support. Once she finished, she talked with the child's worried parents, explaining the excruciating situation and assuring them on how they could help.

Christine Castillo, who heads Verity, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that represents survivors of sexual assault and abuse, recalls the difficult scene vividly when she remembers Armer.

"That's how she was with survivors," Castillo said. "That's how she was with the world."

Armer, 43, died on March 31 from complications of the novel coronavirus, the first California police officer to lose their life to the virus. Family, friends, colleagues and victims' advocates alike have remembered Armer's thoughtfulness for others. Since Armer died, she's inspired others to carry on her selflessness.

For instance, knowing that Armer was on duty up until the time she became sick, Mari Lau, her older sister, has purchased blue masks for nearly every officer in the Santa Rosa Police Department in a tribute to her sister. Her friend and fellow officer Stephen Bussell started a fundraiser through the professional organization Peace Officers Research Association of California that has raised more than $62,400 for her family. A California woman read in the local newspaper that Armer wasn't immediately tested for the virus and started a petition to demand testing for first responders. More than 56,000 people have signed it.

"She would be so happy to hear that," Lau said. "I just wish that was the case prior to her having to lose her life over it."

Armer, a 20-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Police Department, asked to be tested for the coronavirus but was denied three times, her sister said. She first complained of flu-like symptoms, including fever, body aches and chills, around March 9, but wasn't given a test until March 23. Before getting sick, she was working, responding to crime scenes and helping patrol.

In a statement, her hospital, Kaiser Permanente's Vallejo Medical Center, confirmed that Armer was not immediately tested and offered condolences to her family and friends.

"We closely follow public health authority testing rules, as we did in this case, which have been based on very limited availability of tests," Kaiser Permanente spokesman Marc Brown told The Washington Post. "Those rules for testing have evolved over the past several weeks, whereas a month ago, testing was under the exclusive authority of the public health department and limited to those with symptoms and who had primary contact with a COVID-positive person."

When Armer was finally told she would be tested, she went to the hospital and was admitted by staff with a high fever. The last time she texted her sister was to tell her she was going to be intubated, Lau said.

Hours after Armer was put under, her test results came back positive for the virus.

While Armer was under a medically induced coma to let her lungs recuperate, her family sent her voice recordings, and it somewhat worked -- Armer's oxygen levels improved, and her heartbeat sped up. But the changes did not last.

She died on March 31. It was a shock to her family, who thought Armer -- a young police officer with no underlying health conditions -- would recover.

"It doesn't pick and choose its victims," Lau said of the coronavirus. "It just takes whoever."

Lau said her sister had a lot to look forward to. Armer, her husband and her teenage stepdaughter had moved into a new home a year ago. She was busier at work.

"She had so many more years to build a life in her new home," Lau said, adding that she's grateful that money raised by the fundraiser will go to Armer's husband and stepdaughter.

Armer was also honored on April 3 by a mile-long procession of law enforcement vehicles with their lights flashing, which drove to the hospital where Armer died. California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office called for flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-staff. The police department encouraged the community to wear blue for one day. Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square was lit up in blue lights for a night.

No one was told in advance about the procession to avoid crowds from gathering, but people watched online, including Castillo, the victims' advocate. Castillo cried as the cars inched forward in memoriam of Armer, who worked in the same building as Castillo and often visited her office to meet with victims or advocates.

When the office learned of her death, some Verity employees left wildflowers at the closed building, Castillo said. Instead of a planned staff meeting, a Zoom call turned into a conversation about Armer and their appreciation for her thoughtfulness as a detective.

Before Armer became a detective for the department's Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Team, she became interested in police work when she was young: in high school as an Explorer for the National City Police Department. After she graduated, she was hired as a field evidence technician and rose to a sworn police officer for Santa Rosa in 2008.

Her detective job is one of the most difficult positions on the force, Stephen Bussell, a fellow Santa Rosa police officer and friend of Armer, said.

"You're dealing with some of the most sensitive and vulnerable groups of victims, when it comes to sexual assault and domestic violence," Bussell said. "I think those personal traits that she had obviously served her well as a professional, but also she reached across the aisle, put herself in other people's shoes, established empathy in both realms, personal and professional."

Despite common workplace cliques, Armer made friends with everyone, Bussell said.

Ernesto Olivares, a retired SRPD lieutenant and Santa Rosa City Council member, remembered relating to how much Armer enjoyed sharing her family's recipe of lumpia, a Filipino spring roll, during office potlucks. It reminded Olivares of his family's tamales.

When Olivares saw Armer's name on his daily roster, he felt encouraged, he said.

"She just had a presence in the room that made you feel good," he said.

Olivares left the police department, but when he heard of Armer's death, he said it felt like losing a family member. She serves as a reminder of how vulnerable any police officer can be, Olivares said. Nine other employees of the police department tested positive, but the national scope of how the virus has impacted first responders isn't fully known.

Lau, her sister, said Armer first became interested in becoming a police officer because she thought she could help others on the job.

"She went above and beyond that these families and kids were properly taken care of," Lau said.

"That was her," Lau said of her sister, "she had a heart of gold."

 

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