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Tucson officers citing minor offenders instead of taking them to jail to reduce coronavirus risk
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Tucson officers citing minor offenders instead of taking them to jail to reduce coronavirus risk

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

Tucson-area law enforcement officials are finding ways to limit the amount of people taken to jail in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The effort is one of many changes several agencies have made in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Agencies are also asking officers to not pursue minor violations when possible, clean their vehicles and equipment more often and wear protective gear. Serious offenders, like domestic violence suspects, are being arrested and booked into jail.

Other first responders have also started wearing and carrying protective gear to keep themselves and the community safe when responding to emergencies.

Keeping people out of jail

Limiting the number of people they book into Pima County jail both reduces how long an officer interacts with a community member and helps prevent a COVID-19 outbreak within the jail, which has no known cases of the virus, city and county officials said.

Officers have been directed to write people detained for minor crimes tickets but not transport them to jail whenever possible.

These directions have been given to both Tucson police officers and Pima County sheriff’s deputies.

Those cited will still have to appear before a judge at a later date.

The police department has always tried to find alternatives to booking suspects into jail but those alternatives are being emphasized due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Assistant Chief Kevin Hall of the Tucson Police Department.

These decisions are made at officers’ discretion and are limited to cases where people did not commit a violent crime, Hall said.

Domestic violence suspects, for example, by law have to be arrested and booked into jail.

“Public safety is not going to be impacted by this,” Hall said. “We will continue to arrest people, we’re just trying to limit who we arrest.”

Sheriff Mark Napier said deputies have also been directed to cite people instead of booking them into jail whenever possible.

“We’re absolutely trying to use very good judgment about who gets booked into the jail to make sure that there is a significant public safety reason to have them booked in because the main concern is introduction of the virus into the jail,” Napier said. “Currently we have no cases in there so the jail is a safe place to be right now as far as the virus goes but we want to make sure that we don’t introduce the virus into the jail.”

Other agencies, including the Marana Police Department, Oro Valley Police Department and Department of Public Safety have not directed their officers to limit or reduce the amount of people they transport to jail, but each officer can decide at their discretion whether to cite someone instead of taking them into custody and transporting them.

Limiting citations to public safety threats

Officers and deputies have also been instructed to only arrest or cite people when the offense threatens public safety in order to reduce their face-to-face contact with community members.

A temporary directive to sheriff’s deputies says they should “evaluate the necessity of law enforcement on-site activity” before conducting a traffic stop or a field interview.

The directive also asks deputies to restrict issuing citations or verbal or written warnings for offenses like equipment violations or civil violations to cases where the crime “presents a threat to the public.”

The Tucson Police Department is also trying to reduce issuing citations, Hall said. Officers won’t be pulling people over for speeding unless it’s excessive, reckless or the officer suspects the driver is impaired, he said.

Tucson police are also holding back on serving arrest warrants for non-violent misdemeanor crimes, Hall said.

“The bottom line is if they have to be stopped they’ll get stopped, if they have to go to jail they’ll go to jail,” he said. “But we’re trying to limit that.”

Marana officers have also been instructed to not be as rigorous on speeding enforcement and other minor crimes in order to not put the public at risk of becoming infected unless it’s extremely necessary, said Sgt. Jose Alvarez, a Marana police spokesman.

Agencies shift to online services

Local police departments and the sheriff’s department are serving the public online or by phone for nonessential services to minimize person-to-person contact.

Tucson police closed its substation lobbies through at least March 31 and is asking people to report non-emergencies on the police non-emergency line at 791-4444 or online.

The department is asking that people report non-dangerous crimes by phone, such as if something was stolen from a front yard or from inside an unlocked car but the suspect has left, Hall said.

The Marana and Oro Valley departments are also asking the public to report crimes that already happened by phone, though their lobbies remain open with limitations.

The sheriff’s department closed the lobbies of most of its facilities Thursday and is also handling reports over the phone for crimes that have already happened or where the victim is not in immediate danger.

The sheriff’s department on Thursday closed the front lobbies of its headquarters building, records unit and patrol district offices, including the Ajo, Foothills, Green Valley, Rincon, San Xavier and Tucson Mountain District offices.

The lobbies for the civil unit, forensics unit, vehicle impound unit and the property and evidence unit will remain open, the department said.

Emergency responders equipped with protective gear

In preparation for the coronavirus emergency in the United States, Tucson police were issued a pandemic kit, Hall said.

The kit contains gloves, N95 masks for themselves, and surgical masks they can ask a community member to wear if they see the person is symptomatic, coughing too much or tells the officer they might be sick. The officer can only suggest the person wear a mask, but can’t force them to, Hall said.

The kit also includes hand sanitizer and wipes for the officers to clean their hands, equipment and vehicles. Officers have also been asked to clean their vehicle and equipment before and after every shift.

Other Tucson area police departments have also enhanced their daily cleaning and officers carry N95 masks or surgical masks for themselves, along with gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

Changes for first responders in preparation for COVID-19 started earlier in March, when call takers at the city’s 911 communications center started asking additional questions related to coronavirus symptoms on medical calls, said Jamie O’Leary, director of public safety communications for the city of Tucson.

Call takers started asking whether the person had any symptoms including shortness of breath, fever or a cough. They also asked if the patient had traveled or been in contact with someone who traveled to a country where there were known cases.

Dispatchers provide all additional information to first responders, so they know what to expect and how to protect themselves when they arrive for a medical call.

The Tucson Fire Department received P-100 respirator masks last week to protect themselves and community members.

“If you see Tucson Fire crews looking a bit more like Darth Vader, don’t be alarmed! Every firefighter is being fitted with a P-100 respirator and will be wearing them on medical calls for the time being,” a Tucson Fire Department Facebook post said.

Firefighters are also making sure they wear boot covers, and anything that touches any surface is triple checked to make sure it has been decontaminated, said Michael Colaianni, spokesman for the Tucson Fire Department.

Colaianni said the department is not disclosing whether any fire personnel has gotten sick, tested positive for COVID-19 or been asked to self-quarantine.

“This is just such an unprecedented situation and I have to give credit where it’s due, with our firefighters that keep coming to work every day,” Colaianni said. “We’re here and we’re ready to serve the public, we’re still in full capacity to do that.”

Officer Francisco Magos, a Tucson police spokesman, said he has not been notified of any officers testing positive for COVID-19 or isolating because they have coronavirus symptoms. He couldn’t say whether any officers were out on sick leave. “We don’t have anyone with those symptoms right now that’s out.”

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