As the novel coronavirus continues to sweep across the globe, every profession is being impacted differently. Many people have set up home offices, some companies have had to furlough or lay off their staff, and businesses have had to completely revamp their daily operations.
For law enforcement, however, things must proceed as usual.
“I have run emergency management situations with tornadoes, train derailments and plane crashes – but this is a whole new world,” said Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele. “This has affected everyone, but we’re not going to stop doing our jobs.”
The day-to-day life of a law enforcement officer hasn’t changed that much due to COVID-19, Thiele said, but they have stepped up some of their precautions when it comes to responding to calls or making traffic stops. Deputies in Steele County are always equipped with N95 masks, gloves, and goggles or safety glasses that they are encouraged to use whenever they feel they could be at a higher risk, but Thiele said they have always been trained to assess the dangers and obstacles in every situation.
“They are all very prepared when they have to deal with a person as is,” Thiele stated. “Now they’ve just heightened their senses with COVID-19. My deputies are not taking any risks.”
Le Sueur County Sheriff Brett Mason echoes Thiele’s comments, stating that they are adding some additional measures that have always been in place so that law enforcement can continue to do the job they signed up for: to protect and serve.
“We’re using precautionary measures all the time, but in this trying time with the pandemic, we are very cognizant of what we need to do to protect ourselves and the public,” Mason explained. “We have protocol in place with dispatch to use a systematic approach with a series of questions to try to mitigate some things during the interview process. Those questions can include where someone has been and if they have had any symptoms in the last couple of days – we wouldn’t normally be asking those medical-type questions.”
Mason said that being on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for him and his deputies. Weekly or daily meetings address any concerns those patrolling the streets may have.
“My job is to ensure that we’re doing the best we can,” Mason said. “Each and every day is a new day here with the pandemic as things seem to change with guidelines and executive orders week in and week out.”
Both Mason and Thiele said that calls have been down since the social distancing first began in Minnesota, though the sheriffs aren’t confident that it will remain that way as school and many businesses are to remain closed for another five weeks following Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order Wednesday.
“Since the first executive order, our call load and crime reporting has decreased, however our domestic violence incidents and medical calls are increasing,” Mason said. “This is a very stressful time for our entire country, and I can imagine that there are many domestic situations rising. I expect to see it increase for at least the next month or so.”
A rise in domestic violence is not unheard of when already turbulent relationships began experience external hardships. Erica Staab-Absher, director of the HOPE Center in Faribault, said that when you take away employment and add alcohol, financial uncertaint, and extra time together, it can become an extremely dangerous mix in already volatile relationships.
“Things have been a little quiet for us, and we know that is not a good sign,” said Staab-Absher. “We know of people who were planning to leave, but now are in a financial situation or can’t find a house to go to that makes it difficult for them to leave.”
She added that thanks to her previous work on the national level, she knows that certain areas in the country that are a bit further along with their quarantine mandates are experience an increase in both domestic violence and child abuse. While leaving is a bit harder logistically, it is not impossible.
“In the governor’s stay-at-home order, one of the first things he lists is safety precautions,” she explained. “It says that if you are experiencing domestic violence that you may flee. I am telling people we advocate for that they were put first — they are a first priority.”
“It may be a little wonky, but it can be done,” Staab-Absher said. “That’s what advocates are good at – being creative and making things happen even with limited resources.”
The HOPE Center works closely with area law enforcement, and Staab-Absher said that the center is fortunate to have a lot of processes in place that don’t have to be changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever a domestic call comes in to Rice County law enforcement, the HOPE Center is automatically connected with the victim via phone. The bigger obstacle has been finding a shelter to take victims in due to the social distancing guidelines required to help slow the spread of the virus. but Staab-Absher said she and her law enforcement partners continue to do whatever they can to help victims.
“We will do whatever it takes and whatever is needed to protect public safety,” Thiele said about the deputies putting their duty above everything else. “We will be mindful of the 6-foot guidelines when we can, but we will still do what we have to do.”
Said Mason: “We took an oath to protect and serve, and we’re going to do just that.”