TUPELO • The novel coronavirus not only caused layoffs and pressured citizens to stay at home, it also forced law enforcement across the region to take another look at how they do their job.
“Public safety is always a significant challenge and to do it during a pandemic is traveling in uncharted waters,” said Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard.
Two of the biggest differences are the addition of personal protection equipment (PPE) and 911 dispatchers asking COVID-related questions to callers before officers are dispatched.
If anyone at the address has the virus, has been exposed to it or is showing symptoms, officers take no chances. In Tupelo, if there is a known risk of COVID-19, the officer is required to wear gloves and a mask during the call while trying to maintain social distancing as much as possible, according to Tupelo Police Department spokesman Capt. Chuck McDougald.
On non-COVID-19 calls, it is up to the officer’s discretion whether or not they wear the PPEs. Most of the time, they will do whatever the citizen is most comfortable with. Following the calls, officers use sanitizing wipes to clean all equipment.
Since the pandemic hit Mississippi in mid-March, some police departments have seen shifts in the type of calls they receive. Others are seeing a decrease in the number of calls. Cities with curfews are seeing more calls at night. Most departments have also reduced the focus on traffic violations to reduce officer interactions with the public to reduce the spread of the virus.
Over the last month, calls have shifted away from the roadways and businesses. Officials say more and more calls are in residential areas because that’s where people are. Between layoffs, furloughs and telecommuting, more adults are staying at home. Add to that the fact that schools are closed and kids are at home all day, too. That increased and unplanned closeness and near constant interaction can lead to tense situations and frazzled nerves even among the closest of family members.
“We are seeing a lot more domestic and assault calls,” said Holly Springs Police Chief Dwight Harris. “When going to a house, we try to get all the parties to come outside. That helps with the social distancing aspect,” He added that separating the folks can also help diffuse the situation by allowing those involved to calm down.
Oxford Police Chief Jeff McCutchen said his department has seen an overall decrease in the number of calls since late March. But in the last two weeks, the number of domestic disturbances has increased.
Ballard said Starkville has “also seen an increase in domestic-related and disorderly juvenile calls compared to the same period last year.”
In Tupelo, the department hasn’t seen any notable change in the types of calls. McDougald said the numbers in every category, including domestic violence, are down. He attributes that to a reduction in calls.
“There has been a reduction in call volume so the officers are able to log more miles and that gives them more time in their zone,” McDougald said. (TPD divides the city into neighborhood zones with one officer per shift assigned to patrol each zone.)
“We are able to cover more ground in a specific area each shift. That allows us to be more visible in as many areas as we can.”
With departments seeing fewer calls, it allows them to tailor patrols to fit the needs of their cities. Holly Springs, Oxford and Starkville all have curfews so some of their focus has been shifted from days to nights.
“We anticipated an increase in calls for service due to the governor’s shelter in place order and the city’s curfew,” Ballard said. “The department intentionally committed all of its sworn personnel to uniformed patrol responsibilities. In short, we put a lot more officers on the street.”
In Holly Springs, Harris has his officers out every night. When they do encounter people, they make sure the person has a valid reason for being out. If they do not have a valid reason, they are issued a citation. He said they are even stopping people out walking out night and questioning them to slow the spread of the virus and prevent nighttime crime.
Gov. Tate Reeves statewide order closed thousands of “non-essential” businesses. Those now-shuttered commercial establishments, along with empty student apartments in college towns, offer tempting targets for criminals looking for quick and easy scores.
McDougald said the reduced calls allow Tupelo officers to focus more on trying to stop people breaking into cars and businesses at night.
“We saw a quick spike in burglaries right after spring break (when Ole Miss students did not return),” said McCutchen. “Our investigators were able to make several arrests in the following weeks.”
Oxford police have shifted to making sure they educate and inform business owners of any updated resolutions concerning the pandemic. That includes the recent requirement that employees and customers at all businesses wear masks or a face covering.
“We have seen a positive response from our businesses and citizens,” McCutchen said. “Over the past (week) we have done over 300 business checks with no citations being issued.”
The story was much the same in Starkville where officer focus has shifted to not only enforcing COVID-19 orders and resolutions but also providing a sense of safety and security to the community.
“This time of year, a lot of our calls, such as DUIs, public drunks and fights at bars, have shifted to curfew enforcement and counter-burglary activities,” Ballard said. “So far, the plan seems to be working, we have seen significant decreases in crime compared to other jurisdictions.”
The pandemic did have one unexpected bonus for Tupelo – it is allowing the department to get ready for summer early.
With schools closed since early March, school resource officers (SROs) have not have anything to do, McDougald said. TPD is working to get its bike patrol ready to hit residential areas and park.
“And not just bikes, we look to do more with golf carts and Segues,” McDougald said. “Only certain parts of the parks are shut down and as it warms up, more people will start getting out for fresh air in the parks.”
As the weather warms and the state slowly transitions away from the stay at home orders to some since of normalcy, law enforcement will adjust practices and procedures while still taking precautions, including adjusted social distancing, when interacting with residents.