Abundance of Caution

Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The coronavirus pandemic is changing how law enforcement does business.

“Our job is keeping the community safe,” Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe emphasizes. “Our officers are still out doing their jobs every day. It’s business as usual. But the ways we do it are a little different.”
Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting echoes the same resolve. “We have definitely taken measures to insure the safety of our staff and the community. The big picture is changing every day, but we’re keeping up as we know more. No matter what happens, I’m confident we’ll get through it.”

Police officers shift
The announcement of two confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of Tuesday) brought the challenge of maintaining public safety in a time of contagion home. According to Monroe, Moorhead officers were already altering some ways in which they deal with the public. Too, the department is planning how to adapt if the illness thins its own ranks.
“Anything that can be handled by phone, we do it that way. That’s one way we’re minimizing face-to-face interaction,” the chief reports. Many questions and calls for service can be taken care of without close contact.
Visitors who come to the Law Enforcement Center first describe their purpose to the reception staff over the speaker in the entryway. If staff must deal with them in person – releasing a car from the impound lot or returning property, for example – the citizen is asked to wait in his or her car while the officer comes outside.
But sometimes police calls can’t be handled at a distance. “When officers are walking into an unknown environment, they try first to have the person step outside or at least into the hall,” he explains. “You can’t know what you’re walking into.”
Personal protection equipment – PPEs – is available when contact is unavoidable, but its use is currently kept to a minimum. According to the chief, the department does have an inventory of N95 masks along with less-secure cloth versions, as well as nitril or latex gloves and eye protection. “We’re rationing it, though,” he notes. “Our supply is somewhat limited.”
Hand sanitizer was at a premium until Fargo’s Proof Artisan Distillers switched some of its production from vodka to virus-killing lotion. “We bought big containers of it, and we’re filling small bottles so that every officer has one on his person or in his car,” Monroe says.
The department is taking all the recommended steps to sanitize its own squad room as well. Maintenance staff makes extra rounds cleaning every touchable surface – light switches, door switches, handrails. Vehicles are thoroughly cleaned after every use.
Their practice has changed on the street. “We’re not making traffic stops unless the public safety is endangered,” Monroe says. When officers are investigating a car crash, they no longer have drivers hand over their insurance documents; instead, they photograph them with their department-issued smartphones.
His department is studying its options if large numbers of its staff were to get sick. The Red River Dispatch Center could be a problem, too: “They have a lot of people working in a tight, confined space,” he observes. “We need to have a plan in case they reach a diminished capacity.”
Monroe, known as a worrier, says he and his staff are concentrating on one day at a time. “I am asking my staff to exercise just as much patience and diplomacy as they possibly can,” he adds. “There are better days on the horizon. We have gotten through tough times before, and we’ll get through these just as well as we have before.”

Jail minimizes risk
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department is taking similar steps to keep its people and the public safe throughout the much larger, mostly rural area it serves.
Sheriff Empting’s department oversees the Clay County Correctional Center and Juvenile Detention Center, where inmates and staff interact in close quarters. The jail population has been reduced dramatically – from about 125 two weeks ago to 75 this week. “Some nonviolent offenders have been released to home monitoring or to report back at a later time,” he says. One pod of cells is now available to house anyone who develops COVID-19. Thanks to the HVAC system in the new structure, air can be circulated and purged within that area without affecting the rest of the center.
Both staff and those brought in for booking are closely screened about exposure to confirmed cases, international travel and other risk factors. “We always do screening,” he adds, “but now we’ve stepped it up.” The same measures are being used to limit access to both the Law Enforcement Center and the Clay County Courthouse. A majority of court cases have been rescheduled, and dozens of county employees who normally populate the building are working from home.
Like the police, Empting’s deputies are handling as much as they can over the phone. “Obviously we still have to respond to calls for service, but the volume has dropped a little,” he says. “I do have the feeling that, as people are cooped up longer, that could begin to turn around.”
Deputies are no longer responding to medical calls in the county; that is being left to rural first responders. The department’s stockpile of protective gear – “as much as we had, which wasn’t a lot” – has been distributed to the first responders. Reorders, he says, are now seven to ten weeks out.
Other changes have eased up a bit on face-to-face calls. The need to transport prisoners has dropped dramatically with the rescheduling of court dates. The department is no longer doing evictions; they had discontinued those a week before Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order. School resource officers who would be serving the Ulen and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools have been reassigned during the hiatus. And the sheriff’s department is no longer responding to cat and dog calls out in the county. The sheriff calls it a matter of sanitation: “We need to keep the cars as clean as humanly possible, and in the past we’ve had some dirty, mangy beasts in those back seats.”
Empting has urged all his staff to take the same precautions that have been recommended for everyone: Wash hands after touching potentially contaminated surfaces, and keep them away from your face. The best advice he has for them, as for the county they serve, is even simpler: Don’t panic.
“Our job here is to make things better. Together we can get through this, just like we have other emergencies in the past. There may be some bumps in the road along the way – but we’re all going to get through this together by staying calm and doing our part.”

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