Keeping officers safe while keeping peace presents challenges
From the beginning, the current global health crisis has presented myriad questions, since most people living today have never experienced a similar event on this scale.
But Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts thinks the department is successfully navigating these difficult times.
The overarching question for the police department is: How do you perform normal police duties and also keep officers safe during the health crisis?
In an effort to protect his officers, Roberts said, he has minimized traffic violation enforcement "because I didn't want my officers out there interacting with people as much." Officers more often are responding to calls via phone rather than physically meeting with citizens, and the office is closed to the public at this time.
It comes as no surprise then that there has been a resulting increase in traffic-related complaints from citizens. Certain other kinds of crimes and calls for assistance also have seen a small increase.
"We're starting to see an uptick in domestic violence-related calls and suicide attempts," Roberts said.
He added that there also appears to be an increase in thefts and car break-ins. Roberts speculated that many perpetrators of those offenses are not being taken to jail, but instead, are cited and released, often on scene.
"The jail is only taking inmates for certain crimes right now," Roberts said. "We're not allowed to transport some of these folks to the jail anymore. For example, on a stolen vehicle call, they're apprehended in a stolen car, then those people are often cited and released from the scene. That's a big change in the way we operate. This is just my opinion, but this increase is somewhat that some of these folks aren't worried about being arrested.
"How do you deal with that?" Roberts asked. "At some point in time you have to get back to regular enforcement of those activities. All of this can create problems later. We may see a backlog in court cases later. We're working to get back to more enforcement now."
For the past few years, the Sandy Police Department has had a limited number of officers on patrol. However, two new officers were sworn in last week. But because of the COVID-19 crisis, they haven't been able to meet all the academy requirements yet and must be accompanied on duty by another officer.
The department has a total of 15 sworn officers, including the chief, with one position still vacant after a recent retirement. There is a candidate, but currently no way to fully process their application and conduct a background check.
"It's been a little bit of a challenge," Roberts said. "If we had one person contract the virus — generally our officers are in the office together — we'd have to quarantine, which could be half of our staff and affect operations."
Roberts said, so far, there's been one instance where two officers were not feeling well and they were sent home to self-quarantine for 72 hours. When their symptoms passed and appeared to be unrelated to COVID-19, they returned to work.
"We've been lucky, so far," Roberts said. "Most have families at home, so that's another reason they're being cautious. We also don't have the ability to work from home, so for that reason we have to be extra cautious."
Fortunately for the department, Roberts added: "All of our folks have personal protective equipment (PPE) for now, and we have orders in for additional eyewear and N95 masks. Overall there is a shortage, but we're finding ways around it."
The department also has benefited from a resource-share program between agencies across Clackamas County and a handful of homemade mask donations.
These have been helpful in light of the city's recent additional restrictions, closing public parks during the pandemic. Officers are patrolling to ensure citizens are abiding by stay-at-home orders and social-distancing practices, but Roberts said the department has maintained an "educational approach" to how they deal with those found violating the rules.
"We've been taking an educational approach and, so far, we've had success with that," Roberts said. "Citations would be a last resort; we haven't had to cite anyone yet. We certainly want people to let us know if people aren't abiding, and people are calling. Most people care about the health and well-being of their neighbors. We understand that this is difficult — we're in the same boat. It's not easy to stay home all the time. The 'stay home, save lives' (method) is a tall order. This is not easy to do, but for the most part, we're doing it as a community, and it's working."
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