Keeping the peace during a pandemic

By Jorjanna Price

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A new day in law enforcement unfolded when the coronavirus took hold in Texas counties. Officers who normally enter a house to investigate a call began asking residents to step outside in the fresh air for interviews. Rural residents finding minor vandalism on their property discovered the sheriff’s office taking criminal mischief reports by phone rather than in person.

After arrest, many suspects now undergo checks for coronavirus symptoms before stepping into a detention center. Once inside, their information might be gathered by an employee covered from head to toe in protective gear. During pretrial appearances, defendants face a judge via online video rather than in a courtroom.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic sent county sheriffs and jail staff members scrambling because the virus proved to be highly contagious. Staffs had to be trained in new safety protocols, and crowded jails were thinned out, primarily by releasing inmates with low bails or misdemeanor charges. Statewide, the number of county jail inmates fell from about 68,300 on March 1 to 55,600 by the beginning of May.

That swift drop “is not anything I’ve seen before,” said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The sharply reduced jail population reflected a slowdown in arrests as people stayed indoors and counties accelerated the release of eligible individuals, he said.

Inmate numbers could have dropped lower, but state prisons dealing with the rapidly spreading coronavirus halted intake in early April, leaving about 4,000 prisonbound felons in county custody, Wood said.

While some state prisons became hot spots for the coronavirus, most county jails fared better. Of Texas’ 240 county jails, both public and private, 57 have reported one or more cases of coronavirus-positive inmates since February, Wood reported at time of publication. Inmates confirmed as positive are isolated and treated by the local health department. As of mid-July, there were five inmate deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The Commission on Jail Standards has issued guidelines to county sheriffs throughout the pandemic and has offered, along with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, to conduct medical tests at jails.

Chambers County

Early in the pandemic, Chambers County issued strict stay-at-home orders. Juveniles were told to stay home day and night, and adults were allowed out only for work and essential chores. With the streets of Anahuac and surrounding communities generally quiet, deputies used to chasing felons and speeders found themselves issuing citations for parties and crawfish boils because large gatherings violated the curfew.

The quarantine also brought more domestic violence calls. “People were spending time together they would not normally spend, and they were using a lot of alcohol,” Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said. “I’m told beer and retail liquor sales were at an all-time high.”

Chambers County’s jail population dropped from 150 to 114 as officials moved quickly to scale down the ranks of the confined. It was a team effort, Hawthorne said, with the courts and justices of the peace reducing bail and the district attorney’s office offering plea agreements for lesser crimes.

“We knew reducing the jail population for the purpose of the virus wouldn’t be popular with our constituents. Ultimately, you’re letting out people who may continue as misdemeanor criminals. It’s all a calculated risk,” he said, adding that no violent criminals were considered for release.

By reducing inmate numbers and providing protective gear to deputies and detention officers, Chambers County escaped any coronavirus cases in jail or among staff. “What we’ve done seems to have worked,” he noted.

One change for the better has been a hyperfocus on cleanliness. Hawthorne said that sanitation is a top priority and that extra time is spent cleaning dormitories and common areas of the jail, from the kitchen to the booking area.

“This practice will continue,” he said. “It’s not that burdensome, and I don’t know why we wouldn’t.”

Lubbock County

While the coronavirus presented new challenges, law enforcement has always had to be on alert to potential contagions, such as the flu and even tuberculosis. “It’s a fine line we have to follow to get the job done safely and still do the things we have to do every day,” Lubbock County Sheriff Kelly Rowe said. “Officers on a daily basis find themselves in the most awful places imaginable, so we already had a practice for the best protection possible.”

But even with enhanced safety precautions for COVID-19, “just the act of handcuffing someone puts you in closer than is recommended,” he said.

This spring, Lubbock County began screening people under arrest before they stepped into the detention center. Anyone with a fever or other symptoms goes to a hospital for further testing. The same screening applies to all department employees, including Rowe.

Jail employees wear masks and gloves, and some are in high-level protective gear similar to hazmat suits because they get near inmates during fingerprinting and other intake procedures.

The sheriff said the typical number of arrests, 55 to 60 a day, dropped by almost half in the spring, generally due to a slowdown in gang activity and law enforcement’s minimizing of public contact. By summer, however, crime and apprehensions had returned to their usual levels.

Blanco County

With cleanliness a priority, the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office received help from neighbors who normally produce whiskey and rum. “There are six distilleries in this county, and all have gone to producing hand sanitizer,” Sheriff Don Jackson said. “There must be a bottle of sanitizer every 10 feet in this building.”

Jackson was so serious about social distancing and preventing the coronavirus from reaching inmates and staff in Johnson City that he not only limited visits to inmates, as ordered by the state, but he also locked the front doors of the building and required attorneys, clergy, family and friends to speak to prisoners online. “We’re not allowing any of the outside in,” he summed up.

As of early July, his 49-bed jail had only 20 inmates, most of whom were behind bars before the pandemic reached rural Blanco County. The sheriff accepts only violent offenders, and those are quarantined in jail for 14 days.

Jackson has become a fan of holding attorney conferences by video and wants that practice to continue after business returns to normal. “Now defense attorneys can’t make excuses that they don’t have the time or money to come here and visit. They can do it by computer,” he said. “From now on these cases shouldn’t be dragging on and on.”

Collin County

Realizing the vulnerability of his jail to the spread of COVID-19, Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner put out an early call to area police chiefs, asking them to use their best judgment, consistent with public safety, in making arrests and bringing people to the county detention facility. Then he told his deputies to “patrol as normal” the 500 square miles in the unincorporated areas of Collin County but to avoid handshakes and keep their distance when interacting with residents.

Those precautions and others greatly helped to reduce the risk of spread, he said.

Now Skinner has realized that the pandemic has altered how counties will need to meet their responsibilities in caring for prisoners and providing safe, suitable jails. “Sheriffs will likely have to institute permanent new procedures on screening, testing and segregating inmates, also procedures to improve social distance and enhanced cleanliness,” he said.

Skinner further predicts more extensive telehealth and telemental health services “may become the standard” in county jails.