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Palm Coast Friday, Mar. 20, 2020 2 weeks ago

COVID-19 and law enforcement: A Q+A with Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly

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How is COVID-19 affecting law enforcement and crime in Flagler County? Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly shared his views.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

How is the COVID-19 coronavirus affecting local law enforcement in Flagler County? Who's enforcing the governor's executive orders? And how are deputies keeping themselves — and the people they're interacting with — safe from the virus? Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly shared his views.

So, perhaps we should start with a broad overview of how COVID is affecting your agency and local crime. What are you seeing?

STALY: So, our call volume in our communications center has dramatically increased, mostly with questions, but also concerns. I've noticed that our calls that deputies have to respond to appear to be increasing. That’s probably because people are staying home now, and they’re seeing things or reporting them because they’re starting to get on each others’ nerves.

Are you expecting to see more domestic violence cases, since people are cooped up with each other?

STALY: I would hope not, but we see that during hurricanes, so I would anticipate that we will.

And there is a new set of screening questions that the communications center is asking, right? What's that process like?

STALY: So, we have a number of questions we ask on all calls when we think a deputy might interact with an individual … death calls, larcenies. ... We are asking, "Do you want to see or speak with a deputy on your call," and then we explain why we are asking the additional questions. And my dispatchers are telling me, for the most part, people are understanding. And if it’s an emergency, we’re going to get law enforcement or paramedics in route immediately.

What are the screening questions?

STALY: "Does anyone on scene have a fever or any respiratory symptoms, coughing or breathing difficulty? Does anyone on scene have any flu-like symptoms? Has anyone on scene traveled to a location with confirmed community transmission or have had close contact with a patient with known or suspected COVID-19?" Once we get those answers, we’ll tell the paramedic or law enforcement … "PPE, personal protective equipment, is recommended." Then if the symptoms are present, we ask: "In the last 14 days before symptoms onset, have you come into close contact with a person that is under investigation, is being monitored for, or has had a positive confirmed test for COVID-19?" I have heard our dispatchers tell our deputies, "PPE is reccomended," so I know we’ve answered some calls that had yeses to some of those questions. 

What's the PPE? Just a face mask and gloves?

STALY: Face mask and gloves, that's generally what they’ll put on.

Are these the N-95 masks?

STALY: They are not N-95; they’re one level below that. But we have been assured by the county’s medical director that the masks that we have are 100% effective against COVID-19 and other viruses.

So, how is this changing how deputies are interacting with each other or the public? Are you telling them not to shake hands, etc.?

STALY: We’ve put out all the Department of Health recommendations and the CDC recommendations. ... We’ve authorized them to do social distancing on calls — which they’re not going to be able to always do; when you do traffic stops or make an arrest, you’re not going do social distancing. But they will stand farther away; on calls, they may ask people to come outside [their homes]. 

Have you made any changes to things like paid time off?

STALY: We have a very robust benefits package here, so we have paid sick time that they can use. ... If we have anyone who we believe may have encountered someone with COVID-19, they’re not going have to use their sick time for that; that will be paid time off. ... The two deputies who were under quarantine, their tests came back negative. They were cleared yesterday.

So with these executive orders that are coming from the state, like the one about restaurant and bar restrictions, what role does the Sheriff's Office have in enforcing those, if any? Is that you, or the state that handles that?

STALY: It’s mostly a state thing, although there is a statute that in a declared health emergency like we have now, if people fail to follow the executive orders of the governor, it’s actually a second degree misdemeanor. With that said, the direction I’ve given to our deputies is that we’re going to educate — we are not going make an arrest. ...

So, they'd put out this executive order which said, effective March 17, all bars, pubs and lounges are to be closed for the next 30 days, period. Last night, they changed the implementing direction. These places can now stay open, they just can not sell alcohol. So imagine if we’d have gone out there like gangbusters and enforced this order and given people orders to appear on a misdemeanor. And then the whole thing is reversed.

And it's a very technical world. If they derive 50% or more of their income from alcohol sales, they're a bar — well, we’re not going to know that. They could say, "Well 49% of my sales are alcohol." How are we going prove otherwise? That part of the order is almost impossible to enforce by local law enforcement. State beverage could enforce it. They can go in and inspect.

If the order is given to close the beaches — for instance if Flagler Beach, which I understand is monitoring things day-to-day, decides to shut them down — does the Sheriff's Office have a role in enforcing that?

STALY: It would depend on how the order is written, and who does it. So if Flagler Beach does it, they can issue an order like that for a beach that’s inside the city limits. If the county does it, then it’s all the beaches. It would just depend on how the executive order or local declaration is made. ... If the cities need help, then we would provide it. If the county does it, then we would be the enforcement arm. 

Hopefully it would just be an education requirement; the last thing we want to do is make arrests on these things. The community's already concerned. There is fear, and frankly, panic; you can see that on the store shelves. I'm going into restaurants; I’m trying to help them stay afloat. I went into one restaurant for lunch ... and there were seven people in there. Usually, it was packed. And my party was three of the seven, and you could see and feel the concern written all over the staff. And the waitress said to me and our table, "I’m not concerned about getting COVID-19, I’m concerned about how will I pay my bills." And I think that’s the real fear in the community right now. That, and the unknown. Because with a  hurricane, you can watch it coming and you can prepare, and you can watch it leave. Here, this invisible enemy, you don't know where it is and you don’t know when it’s going to be over. [Editor's note: When this interview was conducted on March 19, restaurants were allowed to remain open, but with reduced seating capacity. A new executive order has since restricted restaurants to takeout or delivery only. ]

If the beaches are closed, would violations of that order also be second-degree misdemeanors?

STALY: Yes.

What are you seeing in terms of crime?

STALY: So far, what I’ve seen in the community is there's less traffic — although we’re still running into each other, because we’re still working crashes —  but I have noticed, there seems to be a fairly significant amount of drop in traffic on the roads. I’m not seeing anything significant change in arrests. I wish the criminals would take some time off, but we’re still making arrests, so obviously they’re not. If they’re going to commit a crime, they’re going be arrested. ... If they’re arrested, we ask them the same questions I told you from the communications center … We're immediately meeting all new arrests at the jail before they're brought in, and taking their temperature and asking these questions as a secondary screening. 

So they're asked the screening questions twice?

STALY: Correct.

Are there any special measures at the jail to keep people separated?

STALY: No; we did have one case — he had a respiratory ailment, and he was put in isolation in the medical ward. And that cleared up; it obviously was not COVID-19, it was just an infection. ... We do have the ability to clear out two of our housing sections, part of the pod, and quarantine in there, if we need to. The other thing the jail has done is we’ve done a lot of cleaning. That was actually started before this virus came around.

How many people could you isolate, if you had to isolate?

STALY: I don’t have that exact number; I would say somewhere between 35 and 50. And fortunately for us ... we’re only running at 50% capacity, so that gives us some flexibility. We are not releasing inmates wholesale, like some facilities are. Here's my concern with that: You let them out; they’re not going change their ways. Now my deputy has to interact with them in the field, and now they’re right back and could have contracted something while they’re out.

Are changes in procedure at the courthouse having much of an effect on things at the jail?

STALY: It does affect the jail. In some ways it makes it easier; in some ways a little more difficult. There are no inmates being taken to the courthouse for anything; everything is being done through our video visitation and electronic means. ... It means we have to move more people around in the jail, so they can go into the room that has this capability to communicate with live view and sound with the judges. 

The other thing that’s happened is that the Department of Corrections has refused to accept new state prison inmates, so we are now holding 19 inmates that have been sentenced to DOC time in our jail. So that increases the cost to our taxpayers, because there's still the meals and all of that. Across the state — I was just on a conference call with the sheriffs — this has held up 800 sentenced Department of Corrections inmates in county jails. Supposedly the Department of Corrections is working on a system for how they can accept new inmates. It's just not an easy fix for the state.

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