Policing a pandemic: Wyo law enforcement amid COVID-19


Law enforcement agencies across the state report that calls and crime have slowed down, so far, as many businesses remain closed, jobs remain in jeopardy and citizens self-isolate to stem the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Wyoming law enforcement faces the same quandary as work deemed essential around the country: How do employees whose jobs entail public contact avoid infection and slow the spread of COVID-19? And peace officers face additional uncertainty: How might their work shift if ordered to enforce a quarantine or other public-health measures?

Currently, none of Gov. Mark Gordon’s statewide public health orders require officer enforcement. Police, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrollers and others say they are not stopping people to ask whether they’re in compliance with the state’s COVID-19 public health safety orders. But they’re ready to do so if called upon.

The Jackson Town Council issued an emergency “stay-at-home” ordinance on Friday. The ordinance is enforceable, but Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith said the town council is not asking police to stop and question residents outside their homes or otherwise actively enforce the ordinance.  

“I think [the ordinance] comes with the full weight of local government,” Smith said. “But there’s not the desire that we have to go out and enforce it.”

Sabrina King, director of campaigns for ACLU of Wyoming, said responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are no basis for eroding or bypassing civil liberties. So far, ACLU of Wyoming doesn’t see any interference in civil liberties as state and local governments take actions to stem the pandemic, she said.

Meantime, law enforcement agencies across the state report that officers are taking extra precautions to keep their distance from people, use personal protective equipment and avoid entering homes. They’re also asking more specific health-related questions when making arrests. 

But there’s no easing up on patrols, responding to calls or enforcing the law.

“We’re still police officers. We’re still enforcing the law,” Casper Police Department public information officer Rebekah Ladd said. “We hold our job in high regard to make sure that just because our community is going through a pandemic does not mean that individuals can get away with breaking the law.”

Jackson police had a scare related to COVID-19 that resulted in two officers having to self-quarantine. Jackson Police Chief Smith said the officers responded to a suspected vehicle burglary and had to detain the suspect before donning personal protective equipment. The suspect appeared extremely ill, Smith said.

The suspect voluntarily took a COVID-19 test, and the two officers remained in self-quarantine for five days last week until results came back negative. It was a close call that nonetheless stretched staff resources at the police department because that same week five other officers were out sick with non-COVID-19 related symptoms.

This week, all the officers were cleared to go back to work. None have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We have something we refer to as the blue curve,” Smith said. It works just like the national COVID-19 curve that health officials want to flatten — the police department doesn’t want too many officers out sick at one time.

“That would start to impact overall operations,” Smith said.   

Police calls seem to have slowed in Casper, Ladd said, although there’s been a slight uptick in calls about juveniles staying at a friends house and not coming home. Police have received a few more reports than usual about juveniles congregating to “party.” But there isn’t a noticeable rise in domestic violence calls in Casper, she said.

Casper Police have responded to a handful of calls from people who suspected that businesses were open that shouldn’t be under the state’s orders, Ladd said. One caller suspected that a gym was defying the state’s public health orders, but it turned out that the owners were simply filming a workout video for their clients.

“We’re just being that front line of a conversation with folks,” Ladd said.

Similarly, Campbell County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Seeman reported last week there’s not been an increase in domestic violence or other calls in Gillette and Campbell County. It’s mostly business as usual.

“We haven’t seen a decrease [in calls] but we also haven’t seen the increase that we thought we might with people being cooped up, and that’s probably due to weather,” Capt. Seeman said. “People are spending time in the parks, and a lot of people are out walking. People have their windows open, and people are in their yards. When I drive through the neighborhoods I see a lot of people working in their garages.”

Back in Casper, law enforcement is extra aware of the unusual circumstances that the COVID-19 pandemic places on the community and on themselves, Ladd said. Officers are filing reports from their vehicles and coordinating via phone and radio rather than at department headquarters to avoid congregating. They’re also making special efforts to be seen patrolling around town to let people know they are available.

The nature of law enforcement work places an extra burden on officers in the COVID-19 pandemic, Ladd said. They’re exposed to a broad array of people and communities on a daily basis, and their law enforcement duties do not allow for extra downtime. 

“They still have to go to work, they still have to have exposure,” Ladd said. “To be a police officer, you have to have that selflessness about you. But I think especially right now.”

In Lander, one of the state’s hot spots for confirmed COVID-19 cases, police calls are down, Lander Police Department public information officer Duane Kaiser said. However, the department is busy coordinating with other first responders, and officers are taking extra precautions to protect themselves from infection.

“If we go down, then that creates a whole ‘nother dimension to this,” Kaiser said. “Everything’s kind of settled down here a little bit, because I think everybody is thinking about the severity of this.”

On March 23, the LPD announced it has moved to tier 3 of a COVID-19 response plan, which entails measures for added officer safety and decreased in-person contact for non-emergencies. Many police departments have temporarily suspended VIN inspections and other non-essential services, including in-person educational outreach.

Gov. Mark Gordon’s state orders ask district and circuit courts to delay in-person proceedings when possible. However, essential criminal and civil hearings continue, and many courtrooms are quickly adapting to online filing systems and video conferencing — capabilities that the state expanded over the past several years.

Courtrooms, judges and attorneys are eagerly taking advantage of the new technology in recent weeks, according to Wyoming State Court Administrator Lily Sharpe.

“It allows them to be more efficient,” Sharpe said. “Absolutely, it is going to be difficult for lawyers and for litigants during this crisis because courts clearly are balancing between staying open for essential and critical business while also keeping the public safe and keeping their own staff safe.”

There’s also an urgent conversation in the state’s law enforcement and judicial systems about incarceration. Jails and prisons are exceptionally prone to the coronavirus pandemic due to the number of people in close proximity and a lack of testing capabilities — vulnerabilities resulting in the suspension of visitation under state orders.

In Fremont County, judges and county attorneys assembled to assess which non-violent inmates could be released from the county jail to help avoid crowding. Some 30 inmates were released as a result, according to the Riverton Ranger.

The same conversation is happening throughout Wyoming’s judicial system, Sharpe said, and any new protocols or considerations to release inmates, for now, will be made by individual districts.

King, at ACLU of Wyoming, said she worries Wyoming isn’t prepared to either protect against or respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at Wyoming jails and prisons. The potential for COVID-19 spread is very high, while medical isolation capacity is very limited, she said. Wyoming’s jails and prisons rely on nearby healthcare facilities that are already stretched to respond to COVID-19 testing and preparing for patients.

“Once you have penetration into the prison system it will be incredibly difficult to get a handle on, especially if we haven’t taken some of these proactive measures,” King said. 

King said that several jails, and particularly the women’s prison in Lusk, already faced capacity and staffing issues before COVID-19. Due to the nature of the pandemic, both the incarcerated population and corrections staff are especially vulnerable.

“We were in almost an emergency situation in our criminal justice system in Wyoming before COVID-19,” King said, “and now we really need to make sure that we’re addressing those issues head on.”

As of March 27, there’d been no positive tests for COVID-19 in the state’s correctional facilities, said Mark Horan, Wyoming Department of Corrections spokesman. Horan said “necessary supplies are available and will be distributed as needed,” and that there are no staffing issues.

State correctional facilities are allowing two free 15-minute phone conversations per week to help inmates and families cope with the temporary suspension of visitation, Horan said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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