Law enforcement agencies in areas covered by stay-at-home orders like the ones in effect in the Kansas City and Columbia areas say they don’t aim to be heavy-handed.
The month-long orders, which went into effect around the Kansas City metro area Tuesday and in Boone County on Wednesday, are being treated as a health issue, not a criminal one, officials said.
The orders include penalties for violations, but Independence police spokesperson John Syme, echoing the sentiment from Kansas City police when metro area officials announced the order, said officers won’t be asking to see any papers for an essential business, stopping people because they’re out driving, or setting up checkpoints.
Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz said one thing he has instructed officers to do is encourage sizable gatherings to break up if they encounter them.
“Like, say, 20 people playing basketball at the park,” Muenz said. “They approach at a safe distance, of course, and just ask them to go home.”
Columbia Police Department spokesman Jeff Pitts said enforcement of the order will be complaint-driven.
“City staff will make contact and offer guidance to any group of individuals that is not following the order,” Pitts said. “It is our hope that community members recognize and understand the importance of saying home and being in groups of 10 or less while maintaining social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
In Centralia in northeast Boone County, Police Chief Robert Bias said he is not sure if his officers actually had the authority to enforce the order.
“The best I understand is, the Centralia Police Department doesn't have the statutory authority to enforce this thing,” Bias said. “It’s an issue with the department of health and the inspectors that they put into that position. The fact is, as far as I am concerned, my officers are going about their daily business and doing the things we do every day.”
His department is not seeing as many calls for help as usual, he said.
“I will tell you our call volume has decreased every day,” Bias said. “I think the phones have rang maybe a dozen times today, maybe.”
Kansas City police posted that while the order is mandatory, and it’s a misdemeanor to not comply, they’re not trying to get people into trouble. They’re focused instead on voluntary compliance.
Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte said an “essential business” or restaurant compliance complaint in the county would first go to the county’s environmental health department.
“They’ll send out a letter at first, and there’s only been one thus far,” Forte said. “If they don’t comply, then we can go out there, and we have several ordinances we can use.”
Thus far, the sheriff’s office has not had such a case.
All around, agencies have not only taken some steps to maintain social distancing in the office, but also to minimize close public interaction, such as closing station lobbies to the public and asking people to call in reports for non-911 cases.
“We're mainly encouraging the public to report non-emergency situations and make reports over the phone, instead of in person, to reduce our officers’ contact with citizens,” Syme said. “This is for their safety as well as ours.”
Independence police and firefighters are also accepting donations of homemade face masks and temporal scanner thermometers to use with patients they encounter in the field.
Forte said that with fielding calls, his dispatchers have a series of questions to discern if direct interaction is necessary.
“If it’s not an emergency, then we take it over the phone,” he said. “If we have to go to the house we’ll ask them to come outside and keep at a safe distance.”
The Boone County order states that the city and county prosecutors have the authority to take action against those who fail to comply and violations are punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.
Bias said that most people are staying at home and doing what they can to stop the spread without any intervention from law enforcement.
“The past couple days in the evening time it's been pretty nice in Centralia so I've seen several individuals out walking, and families or whomever just getting out of the house,” he said. “If you are looking for vehicles and stuff like that, the traffic in Centralia has been drastically cut. I believe people are doing what they can.”