Many Americans are working and recreating at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone can easily shelter in place because of work or family obligations. Others choose to ignore stay-at-home orders altogether. That poses a challenge for law enforcement officers who are responsible for enforcing the state and local public health provisions.
Brian Manley is chief of the Austin Police Department. He says his department seeks “voluntary compliance” with shelter-in-place orders, rather than arresting people who violate them.
“Our goal is … to really use these opportunities to really educate the community about how successful we can be if we follow the orders and we follow social distancing,” Manley says.
In Austin, residents aren’t required to show police documentation from an employer that they’re conducting essential business if they’re out and about. Manley says officers aren’t stopping drivers to find out why they aren’t at home.
“If an officer stops someone for another reason, say a hazardous traffic violation, or, say, suspicion of being involved in a crime, we do not expect the officer, nor are they directed, to ask the person to prove they have a legal right to be out,” Manley says.
Austin police officers have had to change their protocol during the pandemic, including no longer responding to minor traffic collisions with no injuries, and in which both vehicles are drivable.
Manley says 18 Austin police officers are in quarantine, and two members of the department have tested positive for COVID-19 – one officer and one civilian employee. But Austin hasn’t yet reached the peak of the virus’ impact, he says.
An increase in domestic violence is one possible risk of the stay-at-home order. Manley says that in Austin, reports of that crime have not gone up, but that doesn’t mean an uptick isn’t happening.
“It could be that the victim is not able to call 911 because they’re still in the home with the offender,” he says.
Manley says officers continue to respond in person to domestic violence and child abuse calls, just as they did in the past.
Another concern is burglary of businesses. Many bricks-and-mortar stores are closed because of temporary ordinances, which makes them more vulnerable to being robbed. Manley says incidents are slightly on the rise.
“The numbers are very low, but it’s an increase nonetheless, so it’s something we’re paying attention to and making sure that our officers, as time permits, are close-patrolling those businesses in their districts that are closed,” he says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.