Policing during a pandemic

Police: Traffic citations down; domestic violence calls on the rise

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Crime is not necessarily at a standstill, but if there’s a sliver of silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that rural Scott County residents are trying to put their best foot forward.

Traffic has slowed on county roads and city streets. Local law enforcement officers are writing fewer tickets than normal, and they are having less interaction with the general public.

Almost to a man, area police chiefs have nothing but good things to say about how area residents are coping with COVID-19.

“For the most part, I think everybody is doing a great job,” said Brian Carsten, who serves as chief in both Princeton and McCausland. “For what we’ve had to deal with, I think people have really put forth a great effort. They’re trying to get along, and that’s a good thing.”

Blue Grass police chief Garrett Jahns agrees.

“For the most part, the citizens of Blue Grass seem to be the solution to the current situation that we’re in, and I want to thank them for that,” he said. “Mostly everyone is following the traffic laws, and we have experienced a significant decrease in the amount of calls for service.

“All in all, with everything that’s going on, it’s really easy to see that everyone kind of has the same motto of ‘We’re in this together, and together we’re going to beat this virus.’ That’s prevalent throughout the entire city.”

Eldridge police chief Dave Kopatich said that fewer calls have allowed him to be out on the streets more, and he’s impressed with how residents are dealing with the restrictions that have been put on them.

“I can tell you this much, it’s nice just to get out of the office and see some people,” he said. “It’s weird out there. On nice days we’re out and about and waving at everybody that’s walking. My arm actually hurts from waving so much, and that’s not all bad.”

However, while residents seemed to be adhering to the social distancing suggestions and non-mandated pleas to stay at home, there is a downside.

Officers are seeing an uptick in the number of calls related to domestic disputes.

“We have a lot of domestic calls,” said Kopatich, “as well as people not being able to get along with their neighbors, just because they’re seeing each other a little more often, and are out doing things.

“I don’t think people are intentionally out to make people mad, but they have a lot more time on their hands because they’re sitting around and stewing about things.”

Kopatich said that some of those calls are typical for this time of year, in that people are outside because they have cabin fever after being cooped up over the winter.

“Now, we’re seeing the same things, but only in a different way,” he said. “With the pandemic, people only have so many things they can do, and they get tired of each other. That’s when problems start.”

Carsten says the economy is also to blame for an increase in domestic calls in his communities.

“When things are hard at home, and money’s tight, you don’t seem to get along with each other as well as you normally do,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.

“I even see it between neighbors and kids. Every kid I’ve talked to when I’m out and about, they say they are getting sick of this social distancing, and not being able to see their friends.

“When the kids are ready to go back to school, you know it’s been long enough,” he continued. “Hopefully, we can get over this little bump here. I think everybody is getting sick of this. There is only so much you can take.”

There is no question that law enforcement agencies have had to change protocols while dealing with the pandemic.

With less traffic, there are fewer citations. By the same token, there are more citations, but fewer actual arrests, as officers are trying to keep the Scott County Jail population as low as possible.

While it’s not easy, officers are also trying to limit their physical interaction with the public by taking more reports and complaints over the phone.

Here’s how area departments are coping:

 

Eldridge

Eldridge officers have noticed a sharp decline in traffic on city streets, and Kopatich said that not one accident has been reported since schools were closed and more and more people started working from home.

He said his nine-officer department stands ready to respond to all calls, but that some changes have been made on how that response looks.

“When people call 911, somebody is always going to respond in dire emergencies,” he said. “If you’re calling to report your bike got stolen out of your garage because you left your garage door open, then an officer will probably call you on the phone and take your report over the phone.

“We want to eliminate as much people-to-people contact as possible, and we’ve had to rethink how we approach certain situations. We try to keep our social distancing, although there are sometimes that you just can’t avoid it.”

All Eldridge officers have masks and PPE in their vehicles, but it’s up to the individual officer as to whether or not he wears it. Along those same lines, officers are no longer responding to all EMS calls in the city.

“We’re trying to only respond if the fire department or MEDIC is asking for us,” said Kopatich. “We don’t need that many people on scenes like that, and I know the fire department has different ways that they are handling things.

“It’s the same with calls to Grand Haven. If somebody has to go to the hospital, we aren’t going to respond and go in to that facility and possibly put others at risk. If they need us, we’ll go, but we are just doing things differently.”

Another change is in not taking as many people to jail.

“Through the county attorney’s office and the jail staff, they are asking us to basically try and not take people physically into custody,” said Kopatich. “ For instance, in the past, if somebody went to the grocery store and shoplifted, we might have taken them to jail.

“Now, we’re probably going to issue a citation to appear in court later down the road.  However, when you’re talk about violent crimes or domestics and things like that, and you have people who aren’t playing well with others, those people will go to jail.”

Kopatich also said his department is handling drunk drivers differently.

“If they are being cooperative with us,” he said, “we can bring them to the station, process them here and release them with a citation and call to get them a ride home.

“We’re definitely making fewer OWI arrests, simply because the bars are all closed. People are staying home and drinking because there is no place to go. It’s just a weird time right now.”

 

Princeton

Crime has definitely taken a holiday in Princeton and McCausland, where city residents appear to be sticking to themselves more and spending less time on the streets.

“Things have really slowed down,” said Chief Carsten. “We’ve slowed down a lot of our traffic enforcement because we’ve seen less drivers on the streets. I guess the social distancing is working, but I have to wonder how long we can keep this up. It’s just a whole different world out there.”

Carsten said he tries to take as many reports as possible over the phone, and limit face-to-face interaction with the public.

“The other day I had a guy who thought someone was trying to break into his house, but it was actually the wind blowing the door open,” said Carsten. “We don’t go inside the house. We try to do all interactions outside and from a distance.”

Carsten said his department is definitely writing fewer traffic citations. In fact, he’s written one ticket in the last month, and that came 10 days ago as a result of an accident on Highway 67.

“It was a pretty bad accident where an 18-year-old kid was two times the legal limit at four in the afternoon, and rear-ended a guy,” said Carsten. “An 18-year-old kid, can you believe it?

“I did cite him for OWI and reckless driving and released him. I had a sober driver come and pick him up instead of taking him to jail because it’s not a violent offense, and they don’t want the jail to get infected. We’re trying to do our part.”

Social distancing is part of the plan.

“I had a traffic stop the other day where I thought the person was intoxicated,” said Carsten. “I didn’t even ask them for their license. They showed me their license and I didn’t even touch it. I have wipes in the car with me, so if I did have to take possession of a license or registration, I wipe down it down before I take it.”

 

Blue Grass

Police chief Jahns said that he and his department are trying to be more proactive than reactive in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We stand ready to provide first-class service and a safe and secure community for our citizens,” he said. “We have no desire to arrest or cite anyone. However, if an arrest or citation is necessary to correct illegal actions, we will continue to do our duty.

“We are still on patrol, and we’re still watching. As far as enforcement is concerned, we always make a valiant effort to educate a violator before we begin to take enforcement action.”

Jahns said that he has seen a significant decrease in calls, and that from March 20 to April 10, his department didn’t make a single traffic stop. Of the 116 calls for service — down from 140 from the same dates a year ago — 58 were for routine residence and business checks, and 13 were calls to assist other agencies.

“I am seeing much less traffic on the streets,” he said, “and mostly everyone is following the traffic laws. We’re still out there. We’re trying to be seen as much as humanly possible just to let the folks know that we are here for them. It’s very nice to not have to pull people over.”

He also said his officers are being cautious.

“During this global crisis, we recognize that our duty requires coming into contact with the general public,” he said, “and those who violate the law. With that in mind, we are taking reasonable steps to continue to enforce the laws while keeping ourselves and the citizens safe from potential exposure.”

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