TUPELO • With the number of coronavirus cases steadily rising, law enforcement in Northeast Mississippi is changing its practices to better adapt to the pandemic.
Officers are limiting physical contact when possible and taking precautions when they are out in public.
“We are answering all calls for the most part,” said Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar. “We are using gloves, masks and social distancing – everything we can to stay safe.
“If things get dramatically worse, (law enforcement) will be the first line. We don’t want any of our guys infected so we can be there when we are needed most.”
In Tupelo, Police Chief Bart Aguirre made sure his patrol officers have all the personal protection equipment they might need on their 12-hour shifts.
“We have gloves, masks and access to gowns depending on the situation,” Aguirre said. “We are doing deep cleaning in the office, the work stations and all the vehicles. There is an ample supply of hand sanitizer and wipes in each vehicle.
“We are attempting social distancing as much as possible and following the department of health recommended best practices.”
While officers will continue to enforce the laws of the land, they try to interact with people from a safe distance whenever possible. They will not physically put hands on citizens unless it is absolutely necessary.
The same concept is being used for traffic stops. Someone speeding while weaving in and out of traffic on a busy street will get pulled over. Someone forgetting to use a turn signal might just get a warning flash of the blue lights.
“We are letting the officers use their discretion a lot on when to initiate contact,” Aguirre said. “If we do have to pull over someone and get their license, the officer will wear gloves.”
Another change is 911 dispatchers are now asking more questions when someone calls. In addition to getting all the details about the emergency situation, the dispatchers are also asking if anyone involved has travelled outside the country, been in contact with anyone who had coronavirus or if they have flu-like symptoms.
“That has been a big help,” Aguirre said. “If we know it ahead of time, we can go in gloved up with masks on.”
The changing times have also affected the way county jails are operated. Every jail in northeast Mississippi has suspended in-person visitations on site. Some jails have video visitation systems that allow family and friend to visit the prisoners from the comfort of their own home.
The jail is a closed environment, so limiting contact with the outside world will insulate the jail population from getting the virus. To that end, most jails are questioning new prisoners about exposure to coronavirus as well as taking their temperature before allowing them to be booked in.
“Our prisoners are probably safer than we are,” Tolar said. “We are only booking in felonies – DUIs, domestic violence and such – the folks we have to arrest.”
The move has reduced the number of new prisoners coming into jails across the region. In Tupelo, an average of more than 15 people a day were booked into the Lee County jail during the first 16 days of this month. Since March 17, that average has dropped to just 4 per day.