With more people staying home because of the coronavirus, the number of police calls have dropped noticeably, said Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steve Todd.
“I just pulled the numbers,” Todd said Thursday, March 26. “Over the past 18 months, every month, every single month of the year has been higher than the previous year’s month. Until March. Calls in March have actually dropped by 10 compared to March of 2019.”
That’s largely due to people sticking closer to home, he said.
“The entire community has just really slowed down,” Todd said. "So many businesses are not operating, not functioning. There’s less traffic, less accidents, less movement.”
Statewide, drunk driving arrests and crashes are down dramatically in Minnesota, according to a Forum News Service story by John Hageman. Between March 17 and March 26, DWI arrests by the state patrol dropped from 204 last year to 88 this year, Hageman reported.
In the same time period, the state patrol responded to 389 crashes this year, down from 762 crashes last year.
With Detroit Lakes bars closed, there is less alcohol-related activity for the nighttime police crew to worry about, but “I’ve got other stuff for them to be working on, they’re still working,” Todd said.
Todd himself has been working long days. "There’s so much going on with COVID-19, making sure staff can protect themselves against infection,” he said.
He has been making plans to ensure adequate staffing, and adjusting trigger points for those plans, in case the virus strikes hard in Detroit Lakes. That means sequestering officers from each other to avoid cross-exposure among staff. The idea is to have police officers interact only within a predetermined group of officers -- working only within that group in standardized shifts, one daytime and one nighttime shift.
It would mean an end to so-called “power shifts” that overlap during busy times and include members of both groups.
“We’re working to reduce risks of cross-exposure among staff,” he said. “Some of the relatively minor calls that would have been taken in person are now handled over the phone.”
On medical calls, if someone was suffering from a flu-like illness, “we used to go in and help the paramedics,” Todd said. “Now we wait outside until we’re asked by the paramedics for help.”
Along similar lines, the front office is closed to walk-in traffic, with the records staff now handling all public interaction by phone, email, U.S. mail or fax. Members of the public can email police records staff at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 847-4222, or fax at 844-7405. Staff is working regular hours during the lobby closure and all essential services continue to be provided.
After a good deal of scrambling, the department now has a reasonable supply of N95 masks for its staff, Todd said. “They’re really hard to come by now -- because of the panic buying,” he added. The N95 masks achieve a very close facial fit, and offer filtration of airborne particles, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Hand sanitizer is also very hard to come by, Todd said, again because of the panic buying. Fortunately, county emergency services manager Craig Fontaine was able to connect with a Fargo company that transitioned from making liquor to making hand sanitizer. The product works well, but it “smells like cheap whiskey,” Todd said with a laugh.
When it comes to looking out for each other, “we’re all in this together,” Todd said. “I just want people to stay calm. We’re all in this together and we’ll get through this together.”
He credited Beth Pridday of Detroit Lakes with taking the reins on a new program called Volunteer DL, which helps those in need during the coronavirus pandemic. “There are about 50 volunteers now,” Todd said. “They handle three or four calls for help a day.”
Policing the stay-at-home order
A two-week “stay-at-home” order for Minnesota started midnight Friday and runs through April 10.
The order by Gov. Tim Walz says residents must stay at home unless their work is deemed “critical” or they are engaged in allowable activities such as food shopping. Violating the order is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.
“Have you read the order?” Todd asked. “It’s 11 pages long and eight pages are filled with exemptions to the order. The way the governor wrote that, I believe he’s seeking voluntary compliance.”
Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander said deputies remain on patrol, and they will use their discretion on how to handle people they believe are violating the stay-at-home order.
“Our goal is not to put people in jail, our goal is that everybody follows the order and stays safe,” Glander said.
Part of the reason the call for service numbers are down is because “most people are taking this seriously and want to do their part to minimize the spread (of COVID-19)” Glander added.
County taking precautions
The sheriff’s office has taken precautions to protect jail inmates from the virus, by encouraging remote visitations and using televideo for some court appearances.
Dispatchers are screening callers for COVID-19 symptoms so officers and medical crews know what to expect as they respond to emergency calls.
“What we can do over the phone, we are trying to do,” Glander said. “Some calls for service require a personal response.”
The department has enough masks and protective equipment for now, but supplies are an ongoing concern, he said. “We’ve been working with the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association on this,” Glander said. The West Central Minnesota EMS is also involved in making sure EMS workers and law enforcement have enough protective gear, he said.
Due to COVID-19, in order to continue to safely provide 24/7 operation, Glander said the doors to the sheriff’s office Communications Center at the courthouse are open for emergencies only.
The internal doors to the office staff will be locked and business will be conducted via phone, email and mail.
Permits to purchase firearms, civil process, and boat and water-related permits will be handled by mail or email until further notice.
By state law, permits to carry must be accepted in person. Call the sheriff’s office at 218-847-2661 to schedule an appointment. Phones will continue to be answered 24/7. During business hours, the office is staffed to assist with business calls to the sheriff’s office.
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