The coronavirus pandemic has certainly taken a bite out of crime, and that fact is borne out in the number of inmates currently being housed at the Scott County Jail.
However, keeping inmates and jail staff safe, and somewhat isolated, has been a challenge.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this before,” said Sheriff Tim Lane, “and things have been pretty busy for the past month.
“No. 1, we had to put together a plan to deal with it, and then No. 2, we had to make sure we had all the supplies that we needed. Finally, we had to change our way of doing business.
“In the jail, we’ve had to make quite a few changes,” he continued. “Social distancing is not easy in a jail. Our facility only gives us so many opportunities to isolate or quarantine people. We have to take advantage of every opportunity that we have in order to create social distancing.”
One way of doing that is cycling inmates within the jail by keeping them in the same group that they were booked in with.
The jail population peaked in January, with 391 inmates being housed in various counties across three states.
Those numbers finally started coming down in February, before COVID-19, but when the pandemic put a stranglehold on area communities in mid-March, it triggered an even more rapid decline, all the way to the point that there were just 219 inmates on Friday.
“The numbers originally started coming down because we began processing some of our parole and probation violators quicker,” said Lane. “Then, when the pandemic hit, we began looking at who still needed to be in jail, and who could have their cases handled if they were released.
“There weren’t a lot of inmates who were released that way, but there were some.”
Now, the lower population is because deputies, as well as other law enforcement agencies in Scott County, are being more judicious as to when they book offenders in the jail.
“All the departments are helping us,” said Lane. “We’ve had quite a bit of cooperation from all of the agencies within Scott County in order to help with this problem. We are also seeing that traffic on the streets is down, which means there are less potential violators.
“If it’s possible to cite offenders and release them with a court date, or hold the charges for a warrant in the future, they are doing it. That is really helping.”
Lane said his own deputies are especially looking at each violation, and making difficult decisions.
“We are asking officers to use discretion, and to write citations whenever possible,” he said. “Those are citations to appear in court without actually going to jail.
“We are also going to hold onto some cases, especially misdemeanors, and request warrants for them once we can actually process them through the courts a little bit easier. Some cases are being delayed, and some are moving forward without the person ever going to jail.
“In general, with businesses closed and people not at work, and not having places like bars opened, we’re finding that some of our overall numbers are coming down.”
Lane was very clear that violent crime offenders will not be getting out early, and won’t be avoiding jail time.
“People who commit forcible felonies and violent or gun-related crimes, those people are going to come to our jail, and stay in our jail,” said Lane.
Like other area agencies, the sheriff said his department is also seeing an increase in domestic violence calls, and those individuals are also finding themselves in jail.
“We are still seeing people come to jail on domestic violence cases,” he said, “and those types of offenders will still come to jail, regardless of any kind of jail booking policy that we create.”
Lane also expects that the jail population has hit its low point, and that the number of inmates being held in custody will start to rise.
“It’s likely that our jail numbers have already reached our lowest level and will creep back up,” he said. “This is not going to last long.
“I would expect that when people start going back to work, and we start going through normal court procedures, overall as a sheriff’s office we will become very, very busy.”
Ready to help where needed
There is a concern in some of the smaller communities across Scott County as to what would happen if a police officer would be exposed or test positive for the coronavirus.
“If one of my officers gets it, we’re all going to get it,” said Eldridge police chief Dave Kopatich. “But, when somebody calls 911, somebody is always going to respond.”
Most likely, that response will come from the Scott County Sheriff’s Department, or possibly police officers from Davenport and Bettendorf.
“I met with the police chiefs in Davenport and Bettendorf about a month ago, at the very beginning of this,” said Lane. “We decided that if any agency within Scott County starts losing their people to the virus, and have to be off work, that we will share employees.
“We will make sure that all areas of Scott County receive the patrol and law enforcement that they need. The sheriff’s office will assist any city, and Davenport and Bettendorf have shown a willingness to do the same thing.”
Lane said that being flexible might even be necessary within his own department.
“The sheriff’s office is unique. We have deputy sheriffs, bailiffs and correctional officers,” he said, “and there’s going to be the possibility that we are going to have to have reassignments within the sheriff’s office itself to make sure all those jobs are covered sufficiently. That is something I’m keeping an eye on.”
Lane did say that while the pandemic has crippled much of the community, law enforcement agencies stand ready.
“Law enforcement works in this environment on a regular basis,” he said. “Emergency response is what we do. We actually are very well prepared for this.
“The thing about this one is that no one has ever seen it before, and nobody really saw it coming. It really happened quickly.”
Lane said he is proud of how his department has responded to the crisis.
“I think the officers, and all of my employees, are doing extremely well in their attitude towards this, and their willingness to come to work and perform their job,” he said. “I just really, really hope that the worst of this does not last long.
“Law officers can’t always social distance. When you’re talking about bailiffs, correctional officers and deputy sheriffs, the six-foot distance doesn’t apply when you’re arresting somebody, patting them down, handcuffing and transporting them.
“No matter what, we just can’t do that. It’s one thing to ask our officers to do it for 30 days, but it’s something else to say that we don’t know this is ever going to end.”