BOISE, Idaho — Editor's note: The above video discusses how social distancing can slow the spread of coronavirus.
Law enforcement officers in the Treasure Valley may start exercising more discretion in making arrests, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Idaho.
By law, an officer may choose to make an arrest in many cases if they feel it’s necessary. They don’t have that option when serving arrest warrants issued by judges; in other cases, they must attain a warrant before they can make an arrest. There are many low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors for which an officer may choose not to arrest a person.
It is those cases — the less serious offenses not involving violence — in which officers may write more citations instead of taking someone to jail, according to all three Ada County law enforcement agencies.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office, the Boise Police Department and the Meridian Police Department all confirmed to the Idaho Press the possible shift in philosophy on arrests.
“Their discretion might change based on the circumstances, but the opportunity to use it is not new,” Boise police spokeswoman Haley Williams wrote in an email.
It doesn’t mean, however, that police will cease making arrests for serious or violent crimes — Meridian police will still arrest people for felonies, misdemeanor domestic violence, and DUIs, according to Stephany Galbreaith, of the Meridian Police Department.
“We will not sacrifice public safety,” Patrick Orr, spokesman for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an email. “Any activity that puts the public in immediate danger will result in an arrest.”
And officers will still serve arrest warrants. Those warrants are issued by judges, and, by law, police must serve them.
Still, both Orr and Galbreaith confirmed their agencies have told officers to exercise discretion in making arrests, especially since the Ada County Jail is the largest in Idaho; across the country, officials and health experts have voiced concern about how COVID-19 could spread in jails and prisons.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office last week blogged about its plans to deal with COVID-19 if it does make its way into the facility. Still, law enforcement agencies in other areas, such as Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Texas, and Denver have encouraged similar arrest practices to reduce possible spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, too, announced on Wednesday that it would stop making arrests, except for those that are considered “mission critical,” until after the coronavirus crisis had passed, the New York Times reports.
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Law enforcement in Canyon County is following a similar procedure.
While there haven't been been any specific changes to arrest policies, Sheriff Kieran Donahue said his office and other police agencies in the county are likely going to use either "cite and release" or "book and release" capabilities to reduce some of the jail's intake, which often is over the recommended 80% capacity.
Canyon County's first case of COVID-19 was confirmed Friday afternoon. At a 5 p.m. press conference, Donahue said officials have changed protocols to the county's jail system to reduce exposure. But he did not elaborate further on what those specific changes were.
As of 3 p.m. Friday, it was at almost 81% capacity with 382 inmates, according to the county’s jail statistics website. Of the current inmates housed there, nearly 30%, or about 115, were booked within the last 30 days.
Donahue said the sheriff's office advised its patrol deputies to focus on "necessary contacts" when deciding whether to make a traffic stop, and decrease the amount of stops for equipment violations or other minor traffic violations, which aren't creating any road hazards.
The Canyon County Sheriff's Office will continue to respond to calls and take appropriate action as needed, Donahue said, with some reports being taken via telephone.
"Our staff will be using the social distancing recommendations as much as possible during their contacts," Donahue added.
In a Facebook post late Wednesday, the Caldwell Police Department said its officers will attempt to handle all non-emergency calls via telephone until further notice.
"Officers will still respond to emergency calls for service and crimes in progress and will continue proactively patrolling our community," according to the post.
The department — which also has temporarily suspended fingerprinting, police ride-alongs and public use of its community room — said after taking a call, the officer will decide if additional investigation or evidence retrieval is necessary.
BACKED BY ADVOCATES
The decision to err on the side of issuing citations and warnings for some crimes instead of making arrests is one advocacy groups in Idaho have encouraged. The ACLU of Idaho, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, and Immigrant Justice Idaho on Wednesday sent a seven-page letter to Idaho’s criminal justice leaders urging them to take a host of steps to protect those involved in Idaho’s criminal justice system from COVID-19.
Among the people they addressed the letter to were Montpelier Police Chief Russ Roper, president of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, and Col. Kedrick Wills, director of the Idaho State Police.
“Police and sheriffs must drastically limit the number of people who are arrested and then detained, even if just for a short time, in close proximity to other people or in spaces where maintaining hygiene becomes difficult,” the letter reads. “Police and sheriffs should cease all arrests for low-level offenses and issue citations in lieu of other arrests so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus and limiting the risk of bringing someone who may have the virus into a public facility and potentially infecting other personnel or first responders.”
Sgt. Bryan Lovell, who works for the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office and is the president of the Idaho chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he felt it would be premature for the chapter to weigh in on the policy question right now.
“I think everybody’s in the midst of dealing with it … in their individual jobs and agencies,” Lovell said. “Our focus really should be there at the moment, to make sure the things that need to be taken care of are taken care of as best they can.”
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