Area police continue pandemic protocols

By David J. Coehrs -

Calls for police help have increased in Fulton County since Governor Mike DeWine eased the state’s novel coronavirus restrictions. It’s an unfortunate step toward normalcy for local law enforcement, which enjoyed marked decreases in trouble the past two months.

And while many of the police departments are returning to regular protocols in answer to the rising service calls, they continue to maintain social distancing and health safety practices.

A survey of all county police forces show advisories to officers to wear masks in the field when necessary and for continual sanitizing of vehicles and office surfaces. All continue to use barriers and practices in their stations to keep personnel separated from visiting citizens.

The communities’ police chiefs say DeWine’s restrictions have proven a challenge but they’ll stay in place for the foreseeable future.

Delta police saw calls for assistance drop to 258 between mid-March and mid-May, as compared to 320 calls handled during the same period last year. Chief Nathan Hartsock estimated the decline to be about 20%.

“With all the COVID stuff and the stay at home orders our call volume dropped significantly,” he said. “At the same time, domestic (calls) went up.”

His nine officers were split into three groups and placed on modified schedules. One group worked four days of 12-hour shifts, then took eight days off as the next group stepped forward. A standard schedule was reintroduced May 10 after the state restrictions eased and the calls increased.

Hartsock said village residents appear to be respectful of the restrictions “but the fact that our call volumes have picked up has led me to believe that people are ready to get back out in the public.”

Patrol officers are asked to wear masks when dealing with the public, and each officer has their temperature taken daily at the village fire department. Patrol cars are sanitized prior to and at the end of each shift. Officers within the station are not required to wear masks but practice social distancing as best they can with proximity issues, and are provided with hand sanitizer.

“There have been no problems, knock on wood,” Hartsock said. “I do my best to follow all the guidelines the governor’s office put out.”

The special practices can cause inconvenience but the chief said it’s just another facet of dealing with the pandemic.

“This is going to be a new way of life for us. We have to learn to do our job this way,” he said. “We are doing the best we can to not spread anything, to protect people.”

Police calls were down in Archbold for at least six to eight weeks, then began increasing two weeks ago when state restrictions began easing.

“People are out and about. They see things happening and they’re calling us about them,” Chief Leo Wixom said.

The village police dispatchers routinely ask callers about their health before one of the village’s 10 officers is sent. If the caller is experiencing a fever or cough or has been ill, or if any other questions arise, the officer wears a mask to the location. Wixom said they attempt to conduct business outside the home and practice social distancing. Officers are not required to wear masks at the station but some do.

The chief said those precautions will continue for now. “COVID-19 might be in the village – we just don’t know,” he said.

For eight weeks, initially, officers went to an emergency shift schedule in which they were divided into two groups. Those in the first group rotated duties, working 12-hour shifts for two days, then taking two days off. After two weeks a second group took over.

Their normal schedule resumed two weeks ago, when state restrictions started lifting. “I knew calls would increase,” Wixom said.

Types of calls on the rise include car accidents and reports of suspicious people or activity. Surprisingly, Wixom noted, calls related to domestic violence did not increase during the stay at home order.

He acknowledged the difficulty of restrictions when dealing with the public but said the department will weather through them. “Our officers are diverse, and when things come up they know they have to roll with the punches,” he said.

Calls during the lockdown dropped between 20% and 25% for Wauseon police. Between March 1 and May 20 officers responded to 640 service calls, as compared to 888 during the same period in 2019. Vehicle accidents dived during the same period, from 51 last year to 19 this year, but calls for domestic trouble increased slightly, from 8 to 11.

Officers had been divided between A and B squads, working a week then taking one off, but that ended last week. “With everything opening up it was a lot of long days for our officers,” Chief Kevin Chittenden said.

The department still issues masks and gloves for officers to use when in close proximity to people. All officers and department staff members have their temperatures taken upon arrival to work, and offices are cleaned twice daily. Masks are worn inside, and social distancing is practiced as well as possible within confined office space. Vehicles are sanitized often.

And if a patrol officer sees too many people gathering in one place outside he will ask them to disperse.

“We’re continuing to follow the state guidelines, but it’s been definitely stressful and different, even the basics about how we handle the calls,” Chittenden said.

Swanton’s 12 police officers were also split into groups when the pandemic became an issue. For two weeks the groups worked a week on then took a week off, then changed to the current schedule of three 12-hour shifts followed by three days off.

“We were going to go back to normal (scheduling) but then I had a change of heart, especially with businesses open and Ohio opening up,” Chief Adam Berg said. “I stayed with this in case of a resurgence.”

Separating the officers into groups also keeps them in their own vehicles, causing less cross-contamination, he said. Officers are instructed to sanitize their vehicles at the end of their shifts.

Berg isn’t making masks mandatory but strongly advises his officers to use them and practice social distancing while on patrol. At the station all staff members wear masks if more than one person is present in a room, and hand sanitizer is available throughout. Offices are cleaned twice per week, and surfaces are frequently wiped down.

Berg said calls from residents dropped across the board while people stayed home but are now increasing. But he’s surprised there weren’t more calls during the state order to remain home.

“The calls would start getting worse if the restrictions hadn’t been lifted, because of the warmer weather,” he said.

People gathering in groups outdoors will be asked to disperse, but Berg said that hasn’t been a problem.

“It’s definitely different,” he said of changes the pandemic has forced. “Our schedules changed…how we conduct business around here has definitely changed – it limited traffic enforcement. We just didn’t enforce traffic as heavily as we did. It definitely limited our ability to do the enforcement that we typically do. We’re going back more to reactive than proactive on the enforcement side.”

He added, “We’re slowly trying to get back to normal with enforcement. I told my guys, at some point it’s going to be business as usual.”

The area most affected, however, has been the department’s finances.

“We’ve taken a hit because municipalities are budget-minded and preparing for less revenue,” Berg said. “Raises were put on hold, spending has been cut. It’s really hurt us in that way.”

The Fayette Police Department saw a slight downturn in calls, from 253 last year between March 15 and May 20 to 222 this year during the same period. Chief Jason Simon was surprised this year’s calls didn’t include more domestic trouble.

“With people stuck in their homes I thought things would get a little hairy,” he said.

Fayette’s officers have yet to confront anyone with COVID-19 or its symptoms. However, if someone is ill at a call they’re responding to they’ll wear a mask. It’s their choice to wear a mask on the street, although they’ve learned that social distancing is a foreign concept to some residents.

“A lot of people don’t understand it, so they walk right up to us. A lot just don’t understand it and don’t listen,” Simon said.

The police station shares space with village offices and, until recently, was closed. When inside now, officers wear masks when around others, sanitize their hands regularly, and practice social distancing as much as their tight quarters allow.

Sanitizing cars was a ritual practiced long before the novel coronavirus debuted. “If you’re transporting you wipe it down, because you have no idea what you’re coming across,” the chief said.

Despite the other changes and adhering to state restrictions, normal shifts have remained, as have normal duties. “Overall, we’re a small enough community, and it hasn’t really affected us like larger cities,” Simon said.

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.