Local police stepping up enforcement of public health orders
FRISCO — Local law enforcement agencies have stepped up the enforcement of public health orders related to COVID-19, slowly shifting away from umbrella policies of education over prosecution as officials seek to combat soaring case numbers throughout the area.
Last month, Summit County was moved to level red on the state’s COVID-19 dial, and officials released an amended public health order to further tighten restrictions in hopes of avoiding another shutdown. But improving the community’s response to the novel coronavirus is ultimately tied to how well residents and visitors are willing to comply.
Conversations on the topic have ramped up between public health officials, law enforcement leaders and the district attorney’s office in recent weeks, and some officials believe the time has come to swap the carrot for the stick.
“At this stage, everybody has had the opportunity to be educated, and they’ve gotten that message,” 5th Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “If you’re not being compliant, then that’s a choice you’ve made, and you’re leaving law enforcement with no other choice but to take action. I think we’re at that inflection point. Rather than saying education is the only alternative, we’re looking at prosecution as an appropriate method. Some people just aren’t going to comply unless there’s somebody twisting their arm.”
Law enforcement leaders in the county said they’re responding to multiple calls a day regarding potential public health order violations. Between April and November, the county’s law enforcement agencies received a total of 648 violation calls, according to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. There were a total of 268 calls in October and November alone, according to Summit 911 Center Director Jerry Del Valle.
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In addition to calls regarding violations, officials said they’re also receiving numerous complaints about the public health orders themselves.
“We’ll call it two teams,” Del Valle said. “There’s one team that wants to follow the rules and wants to enforce the public health orders. And there’s another group of people that are really upset with some of the rules and are calling in to complain. It’s an interesting dynamic that we didn’t really see toward the beginning of the year. It’s pretty intense, to the point where people are calling dispatchers names and things like that.”
Several summonses already have been issued for violators. Breckenridge Police Chief Jim Baird said his team has issued three or four citations over the past two weeks, and the Sheriff’s Office has issued a total of six, according to Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. Both agencies said short-term rentals have been the biggest troublemakers and that citations have been issued in different circumstances to homeowners, property managers and occupants for mixing with other households.
“We have, to some degree, switched gears a little bit,” Chief Baird said. “In the summer, our numbers were pretty low, so we weren’t making the problem any worse by focusing on education. But across the county, Colorado and the country as a whole, I think you’d have to have your head in the sand to not realize the numbers are going up astronomically for everybody. … We’re trying to educate people who don’t live here year-round and ask for compliance. But for the people up here — business owners, retail shops, short-term renters — they should all know the rules by now.”
The Dillon, Silverthorne and Frisco police departments haven’t issued any citations, but police officers around the county have broadly been given discretion to come down harder on egregious violations.
Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor noted that while his officers have a green light to write tickets, enforcing a public health order is often more complicated than other laws given frequent changes at the county and state levels, which officers and community members have to learn on the fly.
To that point, the public health department and law enforcement agencies are still placing an emphasis on education, particularly among visitors who might be unfamiliar with the county’s public health restrictions. And they’re bringing in extra help to get the word out.
Julie Sutor, the county’s director of communications, said the Sheriff’s Office has recruited rangers, who typically patrol the reservoir in the summer, to help investigate violations throughout the county and provide spot checks at ski areas. Some towns are also tasking their police and community service officers with visiting local businesses to ensure compliance and to hand out new information as it comes.
“Even when we go on a call to a business that’s not related to COVID, we’ll still pass out the newest public health orders and talk to them about that,” Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman said. “We’re constantly trying to educate folks. … Like with anything, if people would comply, we wouldn’t have to enforce.”
Still, county officials feel that education is only part of the solution and that providing more concrete deterrents could help to make a bigger difference.
“The shocking spike in cases that we’ve seen told us that we really needed a heavier hand,” Sutor said. “Education on its own obviously wasn’t enough, and we needed both members of the community as well as businesses to know there is a system of accountability in place when it comes to these restrictions. Ultimately our goal is to reduce the spread of the disease to get out of level red. For the people following the letter of the law, it’s not fair to them when they’re making sacrifices if there are people violating the laws with no accountability.”
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