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Posted on March 23, 2020 at 3:01 PM by Renie Dugwyler
In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, we are experiencing a myriad of undesirable changes to our quality of life: social distancing, self-quarantining, remote learning or working, eliminating visits at nursing homes and hospitals, the list goes on. Unfortunately, public safety is not immune to the changes that have been sweeping our county and our country. We too have had to make difficult decisions and take unpopular actions in an effort to flatten the curve and conserve resources.
With personal protective equipment in limited supply, and already experiencing reductions in staffing due to self-quarantines, we have had to identify alternate ways within all divisions to continue providing public safety services while limiting exposure to COVID-19. In addition to closing all public lobbies, mitigating actions we have taken in patrol and detentions are understandably the most visible.
For patrol, we are limiting our contact with the public by reducing routine traffic stops, handling more reports by phone, utilizing one deputy rather than multiple to make contact with involved parties, and requesting individuals who need to speak with a deputy step outside homes or other locations to reduce the deputy’s exposure to additional people who may be inside. Our victim advocates are also limiting contact by handling initial communications with victims via phone rather than in-person when possible.
For detentions, reducing the spread of a deadly air-borne illness is far more challenging considering the nature of a densely populated environment that brings new people in daily and is overall a less healthy populace already. Compounding these circumstances is a previous reduction in jail staff due to funding constraints, the closure of one floor of the jail that has since been partially reopened to accommodate isolated inmates, and approximately a dozen employees currently under self-quarantine.
A primary statutory responsibility as sheriff is to provide care and custody of inmates being held in our jail. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has compromised my ability to achieve this to the extent I was able to just one week ago. On Monday, March 16, three inmates were isolated due to possible exposure to, or symptoms of, the virus. Today, one week later, that number has risen to 36, with an additional 17 inmates at risk of severe illness either due to their age or underlying health issues.
A rapid spread of COVID-19 in our jail not only affects inmates and employees who work in the jail, but also has the potential to significantly impact our community because 95% of the inmates currently being held will eventually be released back into society. The only way to reduce this risk of spread is to reduce the inmate population. Therefore, the Sheriff’s Office, judicial system, and other local law enforcement agencies have cooperatively taken several necessary steps to reduce inmate population, including
· Releasing inmates early who have served a minimum of 50% of their sentence for non-violent crimes that do not involve the Victims’ Rights Act
· Arranging in-home detention for qualifying work release inmates
· Reconsidering bond amounts and bond conditions for some individuals and certain offenses to reduce the pre-trial population
· Avoiding low-level warrant arrests when possible to limit the number of new individuals booked into jail
Although these actions have succeeded in reducing our inmate population significantly in the past week, they are by no means a success. Instead, they are unpalatable for us and unpopular for the public. But during this unprecedented crisis we have to be socially responsible in how we enforce the law, protect the public, and serve our citizens, including those in our care and custody.
Despite COVID-19 posing a temporary challenge for our public safety efforts, we will continue to be here when you need us. Just a little differently than we would like for a little while.