Policing the pandemic
Local agencies report business as usual
Serving as a law enforcement officer comes with certain inherent risks. Most days, those risks are generally clear, but trying to provide the same service in the middle of a pandemic adds another element to the uncertain mix that officers face on a daily basis.
Since last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the world, law enforcement agencies across the country have been operating under special protocols, including closing their lobbies and limiting contact with the public, issuing personal protective equipment to officers, and, for dispatchers, adding questions regarding the health status of callers, all in an effort to reduce the unknowns faced by responding personnel.
“Going into some of these situations, you know they might have the COVID,” Green Forest Police Chief John Bailey said, “so all you can do is make sure your officers have the equipment they need — masks, eye protection, gloves — and try to keep them safe.”
Berryville Police Chief Robert Bartos said the pandemic hasn’t been that much of a concern for his department.
“It really hasn’t been too bad,” Bartos said. “We closed our lobby for maybe a month. We tried to conduct more business over the phone, but then we opened our lobby back up to the public because we’re here to serve the community, and it’s just easier for the public that way if they’re able to come in into the lobby and do their business.”
Bartos said his small staff — which includes 13 full-time officers for the city of 5,442 residents— was issued PPE to use on calls when necessary.
“We’ve got gloves and masks for the officers to to wear, especially if they went to certain houses,” Bartos said. “The [Office of Emergency Management] would provide us with addresses of certain houses where confirmed cases were so we could use caution if we had to deal with them. And I think dispatch got into a thing that, when they would take calls, if they had the opportunity to ask people, ‘Hey, has anybody there been tested for COVID, or had it, or showing symptoms or something?’ So that could be passed down to officers to use caution if there was ever something that came about where there might be something there.”
Bartos said his department hasn’t been hit too hard by the virus, saying that scheduling hasn’t proved too much of a challenge even when officers had to quarantine.
Bailey’s department, made up of 15 full-time officers and one part-timer, serving a community of approximately 2,700 people, has had a similar experience.
“We’ve had several officers, including me, get the COVID,” Bailey said.
After a year, Bartos said, following pandemic protocols has become commonplace and, thanks to the small size of his department, he said it’s fairly easy to keep the virus contained and to rearrange schedules if an officer does become exposed.
“Everybody’s on their own shift,” Bartos said. “It’s not like we’ve got five guys on shift and you might overlap, but everybody’s kind of coming and going on their own. It’s not like you’re cooped up with the same people for periods of time. Mostly, it’d be like you show up on scene for a little bit and then you go back to do whatever. Being a small department, usually we might only have two officers on at a time anyway.
“It’s not anything different than any other years where the flu gets passed around and stuff.”
Eureka Springs police chief Brian Young said the pandemic has affected the police department’s budget, especially when it comes to ensuring there’s enough PPE for officers. Young said the city received a grant to help provide PPE, something he’s thankful for.
Eureka Springs officers are required to wear a mask and keep their distance when responding to calls, Young said. If they can’t keep the distance, he said, it’s even more important to wear a mask.
Young said several of his staff members have been quarantined during the pandemic, but fortunately they have been in different departments.
“There might be one officer and one dispatcher out,” Young said. “When you start getting two or three officers out, it messes up your patrol. If it’s one out of each department, it’s maintainable.”
Young thanked the officers for working so hard during a stressful time.
“I just appreciate them,” he said. “Whether it be the pandemic or just 2020 in general — the year hasn’t been the best year for police — they’ve endured it and done their jobs,” Young said. “Everyone’s using their masks. They’re still enduring and showing up for work.”
Maj. Jerry Williams, chief deputy for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, said that while the sheriff’s office — which includes 21 commissioned officers, including 11 patrol deputies covering covering approximately 637 square miles — had been affected by the virus, it has also been very fortunate.
“Because we have such a low number of deputies to handle a lot of calls for service for the county, it can be challenging to make sure that there are deputies covering the county while somebody is out on COVID,” Williams said. “I will say that we’ve been fairly fortunate. The few cases that we’ve had here of our deputies — which has been very few — luckily didn’t all happen at one time. So they’ve been fairly spread out and allowed us to be able to meet those challenges.”
Williams explained that, while PPE was available for deputies, it’s not required on every call.
“It is available to them and we make sure that they have the mandate of 6 feet and so on,” Williams said. “There’s been a lot of them that, after either having [the virus] or after being exposed or something of that nature, they utilize it less and some utilize it more.”
Part of that, he said, comes down to personal experience and developed immunity, however short it may be.
“I think we’re far enough into this now — because we’ve certainly gotten through a good portion of the people who have either been exposed to it or had it — we’re sitting in a much better place now than we were at the beginning of the year,” Williams said.
Another area of concern was the Carroll County Detention Center. Numerous outbreaks have been reported in similar facilities across the nation and, especially in rural facilities where space is often at a premium, dealing with infected inmates can be a major problem.
Carroll County, at least so far, hasn’t had to deal with that.
“It’s a huge concern,” said Williams. “We utilize our cells to the best of our ability and we have quarantine spots that we have available if somebody were to present or something of that nature or have the possibility that they would.”
Williams said the facility’s protocols seem to be working.
“We have a pretty strong process we use to screen people and quarantine if needed and test appropriately,” Williams said. “So far, we have not had one active case in our jail, not one.
“Whatever we’re doing, it seems that we’re doing a good job.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Despite the additional level of care many departments are taking, local agencies report that it’s been mostly business as usual, at least as far as enforcing the law.
Bartos, who delivered his year-end report to city officials last month, said his department actually saw a slight uptick in offenses from 2019.
“Our numbers on offenses and stuff was actually up just a few from the previous year,” Bartos said. “Into March and April, it kind of quieted up, I think, when a lot of people locked themselves up and stuff, but then once people started getting out and all, it kind of leveled back out.”
Bartos’ year-end numbers indicated a nearly 27 percent increase in traffic citations — 1,449 last year, compared with 1,141 in 2019 — and a modest increase in reported offenses, which rose from 851 to 867.
On the positive side, Bartos reported a decrease in motor vehicle accidents, with 159 reported last year, down from 186 in 2019, and an 82 percent clearance rate in criminal matters.
“Overall, in the year, we finished just a little bit ahead of the prior year,” Bartos said. “We really didn’t see a whole lot of change from other years other than, like I said, maybe the end of March and April, when there were fewer people kind of getting out for that little bit.”
Bartos’ report also indicated that his department’s collection of fines and bonds had been reduced, falling nearly 50 percent from 2019’s total, dropping from $25,117 to $12,505 in 2020, a change he attributed to the use of a new service his department adopted a few years ago that allows residents to pay fines and such online or over the phone.
“We still take the payments here, but we’re seeing less and less,” Bartos said.
In Eureka Springs, Young’s annual report indicated that police officers responded to 2,132 calls for service, a number that includes all calls or requests for an officer, up from 1,961 in 2019.
The 2020 report lists 708 offense or incident reports, including 19 reports of domestic disturbances, 480 uniform citations issued, 502 warning citations issued, 43 noise violations issued, 132 warrants served and 302 arrests.
The 2019 report listed 828 reports, including 16 reports of domestic disturbances, 695 uniform citations, 981 warning citations, 43 noise violations, 118 warrants served and 302 arrests.
In Green Forest, Bailey’s year-end report tells a slightly different story. In 2019, Green Forest officers dealt with 1,510 traffic violations and criminal offenses ranging from no liability insurance (176), no or expired license (162), speeding (125), failure to pay registration (123), and driving on a suspended or revoked license (88), to possession of drug paraphernalia (46), possession of an instrument of crime (39) and disorderly conduct (25).
In 2020, those numbers fell to 1,059 violations and offenses, led by driving on a suspended or revoked license (81) and possession of drug paraphernalia (64).
“Last year was pretty quiet for the most part,” Bailey said. “Now we’re starting to see an increase in domestic disputes where alcohol might be a factor. People have been quarantined multiple times and they’re frustrated after being cooped up for so long.”
At the county level, where the year-end report is still in the works, Williams said the early days of the pandemic saw a downturn in calls.
“There was a downtick in the number of calls for service during the first part of the year, after it kind of ramped up really hard in March and April,” he said, “but after that initial downtick, everything seemed to go back to normal calls for service.”
Information for this report was contributed by Samantha Jones of the Carroll County News staff.