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Policing changes made amid virus concerns

FONDA — Amid changes to most aspects of public life due to the coronavirus, law enforcement and emergency personnel are continuing to respond to calls for service, with some new procedures in place to keep local first responders and members of the public safe.

Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffrey Smith outlined variations to typical police procedures residents may observe in response to the coronavirus outbreak while participating in a press conference with Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort and Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko on Friday.

Smith noted that both the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility are currently closed to the public and to visitors.

“We will open it back up again when we all make it through this,” said Smith.

Smith pointed to arrests as currently posing an additional concern for deputies as individuals from unknown circumstances are taken into custody for processing, leading to strict policies and procedures to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus. To reduce unnecessary travel and contact between individuals, arraignments are currently being conducted by Skype.

“We’re working very hard to keep the inmates safe and healthy and correction officers safe and healthy,” said Smith.

Locals may observe deputies wearing gloves and masks in the field and officers who visit residents’ homes may ask individuals to step outside rather than entering residences or some routine matters may be handled by phone.

“All of these things are a little different for us, but it’s just a way to keep our staff safe. Remember when the men and women are working in the county responding to emergencies and police calls they still also have to try to stay healthy and go home at the end of the day, so they’re doing both and trying to balance that,” said Smith.

Similarly, Smith said residents contacting 911 for medical emergencies may be asked additional questions to ensure first responders are able to take appropriate precautions against possible exposure to the coronavirus as needed and individuals may be asked to meet paramedics outside if they are able to.

“Please be patient with our staff, understand that there’s a reason behind these questions and it’s to benefit everybody at hand,” said Smith.

Smith went on to ask residents to voluntarily comply with the provisions of executive orders issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo temporarily banning all non-essential gatherings of any size, requiring individuals to maintain a distance of at least six feet between themselves and others while in public and closing all non-essential businesses.

“We have been receiving numerous calls and complaints through social media and our dispatch center about places that aren’t necessarily following the executive orders, maybe still remaining open, maybe trying to stay under the radar and have some people coming in,” said Smith. “We all need to follow the rules … Please don’t put us in the position to come and have to try to close you down or eliminate a gathering that is taking place.”

For those who are not following the mandates included in the executive orders, Ossenfort said he is reviewing possible enforcement measures with Montgomery County District Attorney Kelli McCoski, including executive orders that could be issued at the county level limiting the number of people allowed to enter essential businesses at one time to reduce density.

“Locally we’re looking at what we can do, it’s a challenging situation,” said Ossenfort. “Some of it is the large grocery stores, there’s going to be some things we can do and some things we can’t. And we’re trying to work with everyone on an individual basis to try to educate first and inform people first and then try to get to the enforcement piece, but it’s not a perfect science.”

“Some of the stores are starting to take some initiative and take some actions themselves, we’ve seen that firsthand where they’re actually marking floors of where you can wait in line and they’re limiting access to the doors and controlling how many people go in at a time, so I think as this continues to adapt things will continue to improve,” added Smith.

Both Ossenfort and Smith pointed to the restrictions on public life as a new adjustment for everyone, highlighting the need to inform residents of the temporary measures intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus through the community before moving towards stricter enforcement measures.

“Half of this is education,” said Ossenfort. “We’ve just got to keep trying to, as a community, relay the information and explain to people why this is important and I think the longer we go in this, it’s going to be more clear and more clear why it is so important. But we are looking towards local enforcement options that we can have at our disposal moving forward.”

“I would just like to emphasize too, a lot of times we’re gravitating towards people that aren’t following the rules, there is a great majority of people that are,” added Ossenfort. “We need to continue doing that.”

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