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Law enforcement adapts to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19

Glenwood Springs Police officers Rusty Slater and Evan Wagstrom get puffs of smoke around their mouth and nose to test that their personal N-95 masks fit properly on their faces during a fitting on Tuesday morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, law enforcement officers in Garfield County are taking steps to keep themselves and others safe from exposure.

But stopping patrols simply isn’t an option.

“I think it’s important to realize that their safety and security is not going to be diminished whatsoever. We’re always going to be here, and (the public) should see high, visible presence throughout the community,” Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras said.

With public health officials confident the coronavirus is spreading through the community, law enforcement has reduced some of the face-to-face contact to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve really relegated our responses to immediate, in-progress emergencies or crimes of violence,” Deras said.

For suspected property crimes, vandalism and other non-emergencies, the police department will take more reports by phone.

“We’re there, we just might not have an officer come to your home like we used to,” Deras said.

Local agencies have also reduced the number of people being arrested, which is in line with Gov. Jared Polis’ Tuesday guidance to law enforcement agencies.

“Attempt whenever possible to prioritize arrests of serious and violent offenses over nonviolent crimes, while always considering victims’ rights,” Polis’ guidance states.

But in many cases, an officer has to contact a person whether or not they are visibly symptomatic.

Dispatchers have begun asking callers questions about symptoms, when appropriate.

Glenwood Springs Police officer Rusty Slater puts an N-95 mask over his face during a fitting at the fire department on Tuesday morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

On Monday and Tuesday, every Glenwood Springs Police officer was issued and fitted with an N-95 respirator, a mask that seals the mouth and nose from all airborne particles, to be used as needed.

The N-95 is the same mask doctors and nurses use in hospitals to protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19, and the mask is in short supply.

Garfield County Sheriff’s Office patrol deputies do not have protective masks because of the shortage.

“There’s no stockpile of that,” Sheriff Lou Vallario said. “We’re trying to get it, of course, but everybody else is trying to get it (as well),” Vallario said.

Vallario said the pandemic is a serious issue, but law enforcement officers still have to do their work for public safety.

“We’re already exposed to numerous types things that could harm us on patrol. When we pull a car over, are we worried about getting coronavirus, or are we worried about somebody assaulting us, or killing us, or getting run over in the process? We want to sort of keep everything in perspective,” Vallario said.

“I’m not denying that this thing is bad and spreading fast, but we’re going to do what we can do as long as we can do it,” he added.

When a law enforcement officer is ill, or suspects he or she was in contact with a person who might have COVID-19, they should stay home, Vallario said.

As of Tuesday, no sheriff’s deputies were in quarantine, Vallario said.

Three Glenwood Springs Police officers are currently in quarantine as a precaution. Two had attended training several weeks ago in a county with a higher number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and one had a family member with symptoms similar to the coronavirus.

“All three of those people are at home, feeling fine,” Deras said, adding that they should be back to regular duties by the end of the week.

“It’s more of a precaution so they don’t come into the building and infect any of their coworkers, or certainly any members of the public,” Deras said.

For a department already short two police officers, temporarily losing three staff members at a time can be challenging.

But with the social distancing measures imposed by the state, things seem a bit quieter for the police department.

“I think the volume of calls that we have been accustomed to has reduced a little bit,” Deras said.

There have been some calls reporting violations of the governor’s order limiting gatherings of 10 or more people.

“To date, we’ve had to take no punitive action or enforcement action. On the few occasions that we’ve had to meet with somebody, they were immediately compliant,” Deras said.

tphippen@postindependent.com


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