While the majority of Wisconsinites adjust to life at home, law enforcement agencies find themselves facing a unique set of challenges in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Gov. Tony Evers announced he would halt new admissions into the Wisconsin prison system after a Department of Corrections employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
At the same time, law enforcement agencies, like the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and the UW-Madison Police Department, must now navigate how to perform their daily operations and services while minimizing the potential for transmission of the virus.
Changing prison populations
While Evers' decision to limit the states’ prison population — which went into effect March 23 — creates new challenges for the Department of Corrections, it was deemed necessary for public safety reasons.
“This is part of our efforts to stop the spread of the virus and help keep staff and the people in the state’s care safe,” Melissa Baldauff, spokeswoman for Evers’ office, told the Wisconsin State Journal.
The Sheriff’s office has since reduced the correctional facility residential population by about 200 so that remaining residents can be more spread out across the three facilities in Dane County and better able to follow social distancing guidelines.
“Some people were released, and we’re not booking in as many people,” Elise Schaffer, spokeswoman for Dane County Sheriff’s Office said. “Police organizations are being encouraged to either set a later court date for somebody to appear or give citations in lieu of booking them into the jail at this point.”
However, altering the states’ incarceration process is complicated. There is concern that halting prison admissions may lead jails to become overcrowded, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Mahoney believes this problem could have been handled with better communication and collaboration between the Governor’s office and the sheriff departments across Wisconsin — and said there were “absolutely no conversations” about the impact the executive order would have on county jails before it was issued.
Despite the pushback, other departments thought halting prison admissions was a necessary step for the safety of DOC facility residents and staff in Wisconsin.
“We’re in unprecedented times with COVID-19,” Director of Communications for the UW-Madison Police Department Marc Lovicott explained, referring to Evers’ executive order.
The Department of Corrections is taking a variety of precautions to protect employees and residents in facilities across the county, Schaffer said.
So far, this includes using UV technology to clean facilities when possible, doing extra cleaning and providing personal protective equipment for staff.
Any residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms are put into quarantine.
Enforcing social distancing while practicing social distancing
As changes occur in city jails, law enforcement tactics have also shifted to comply with social distancing guidelines as much as possible.
While both the Dane County Sheriff’s Department and UWPD said they have responded to calls about gatherings that violate social distance recommendations and stay-at-home orders, they haven’t had major issues with residents refusing to follow these new regulations.
And although police have the authority to issue fines for violating these rules, this isn’t their go-to disciplinary mechanism — they want to prioritize citizen safety.
“Mainly we’ll get involved to give a reminder about the order, we’re not in this to give citations to people,” Lovicott said. “Our number one priority is first and foremost hoping people self-police and obey the order.”
Despite recognizing that law enforcement agencies are doing their best to adapt to the situation, some believe these resources could be best used to help the people and groups who are most vulnerable right now.
“I feel like with people staying home and presumably less law enforcement resources needed, there are different ways you could use the police force to help out,” UW-Madison sophomore and Wisconsin resident Ty Whiteley said. “For instance, healthcare workers have been especially under duress and police officers have at least some basic medical training and could be put to use there, or their funding could go there.”
Lovicott said UWPD is supporting hospitals and health care facilities in the area — especially if there are any security concerns related to COVID-19 — but diverting police resources to provide assistance has not been necessary.
Additionally, both agencies are taking extra precautions to make sure officers do not get infected or spread the virus.
“We’ve fine-tuned some plans in all divisions in terms of how to respond,” Schaffer said. “Patrols are responding more to non-emergency calls via phone rather than going in person, and we’ve shut down a number of in-person services.”
Likewise, UWPD employees have their temperatures taken every time they come into work. If an officer comes into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, it’s handled on a case-by-case basis.
In many circumstances, especially if a family member of an officer tests positive, the officer would be taken out of rotation temporarily and instructed to follow public health agency guidelines for quarantining.
Officers now work two-hour shifts with the same partner and coworkers in order to limit contact with coworkers to what is absolutely necessary.
“We’ve implemented a number of changes at the UWPD to ensure our officers are staying safe. First and foremost just being smart about social distancing,” Lovicott said. “Obviously our jobs continue, but we just need to be smart about how we’re interacting with people.”