To enforce coronavirus distancing, police say arrests are last resort

Chief: Arresting violators of COVID-19 orders is "the last thing we want to do."

March 31, 2020, 7:03 AM

After some of the nation's first arrests for violations of coranavirus-related distancing orders, police across the country are attempting to navigate the delicate task of enforcing the new rules -- preferably less with handcuffs than with help from the community, police leaders told ABC News.

In Charles County, Maryland over the weekend the sheriff’s office arrested a man for holding a bonfire at his house with about 60 people. They said because he was in violation of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s emergency coronavirus order, and it was the second time police had visited for the alleged violation.

Shawn M. Meyers mugshot after his arrest on March 28, 2020
Charles County, MD Sheriff's Office

A New York City bar operator was also arrested this weekend for a purported violation of a local executive order against nonessential gatherings there.

On Monday, the Hernando County Sheriff’s office arrested Tampa, Florida, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for purportedly being in violation of the social distancing order put in place by neighboring Hillsborough County, where the Pastor’s church is located. Howard-Browne held a service that was livestreamed, showing more than 10 people in the Evangelist church. A week before his arrest he vowed not to close the church and said that closings were for “pansies.”

Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne in an undated mugshot. Howard-Browne was arrested on Monday for not complying with the stay-at-home order.
Henrico County FL Sheriff's Office

Liberty Counsel, the nonprofit law firm who is representing Pastor Howard-Browne said "the Hillsborough County administrative order has so many exceptions it looks like swiss cheese." They added that precautions were taken in the church such as 6 ft distancing and a hospital grade purification system. Howard-Browne was bailed out of jail overnight.

An attorney for Shawn Myers, the Maryland man, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening. Myers was held without bond, according to ABC affiliate WJLA.

It is not immediately clear if the New York man, Vasil Pando, had obtained an attorney.

But as much of the country faces some version of social distancing government mandates, arrests are not the way police would prefer to enforce the new rules and should be a last resort, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

“Police are going to use a great deal of discretion in these situations. Police are going to be very careful about stopping people. This is going to be advisory rather than, you know locking people up," he said. "I can't imagine a police chief wanting to use... their finite resources to cite people."

International Association of Chiefs of Police President and Buffalo Grove, Ill Chief Steve Casstevens said arresting people in violation of the new orders is "the last thing we want to do."

“I’ve been getting messages from many other law enforcement agencies that say rather than making a physical arrest, they're giving a summons or essentially a non-traffic ticket for a violation to give to people for a future time," he said.

Police Chief Edwin Roessler of Fairfax County, Virginia, told ABC News that if a business was found in violation of the social distancing order, they would first try to just offer a warning, before taking more drastic legal action.

"We will throw a call into the restaurant and at the same time, visually try to observe the violation and get voluntary compliance and give them a warning. And we make a report of that and the health department will get that warning and they could follow up that call for service for the code violation with the code compliance team,” he explained. “If for some reason, we are not getting compliance, it's my understanding from being legally briefed that we would then use the health department and code compliance to then call an emergency on call circuit court judge to then issue an injunction that's immediate against the business. Then they would be electronically and verbally served with an order to shut down the business.”

In Bowie, Maryland, where Gov. Hogan has re-instituted the stay-at-home order, Police Chief John Nesky told ABC News that they have had a few instances of reminding people to socially distance themselves from others.

Los Angeles police officers patrol a sparsely populated Venice Beach boardwalk, March 28, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

“We have not had to charge anybody. It's all been we get there [and] explain why,” he said. “One of the things you want to careful of, that we don't want to do is ramp up tensions even higher. And if you start to... take this really hard crackdown on things, that may not be within the realm of what's necessary at the moment. You're just going to kind of amplify your issues.”

Providence, Rhode Island Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said that it is “impossible” for law enforcement to stop everyone from these orders. Rather, he said police needed to take a community approach to the problem.

“It's akin to your taxes, right? We need compliance and to pay your taxes and to be honest and fair about [paying them]. Because it's impossible for the government to audit every single tax submission and returns," he said. "We're asking and we're pleading with people to obey the guidelines in the executive orders, whether it's the governor or the mayor. ... So the majority of the people will, but what do you do with those that thumbing their nose at it, continue to violate it? That's the challenge for law enforcement.”

Paré added that they aren’t looking to arrest or fine people, but that police will do what they can to break up large groups. Multiple police departments with which ABC News spoke said that they have taken measures at local outdoor parks to discourage people gathering, such as removing or boarding up basketball hoops and locking gates.

North Miami, FL Police Chief Larry Juriga told ABC News that he, too, is emphasizing a community based approach -- neighbors relying on their neighbors to keep everyone safe.

“If we can have our communities comply, we will save lives. As simple as that. It's very rare that you can say something like that. If you comply with these ordinances and you comply with these orders you will save lives,” Juriga said. “Our men and women are going out. And what we're encouraging is education, about the about the requirements, and then what we're pushing for is we're pushing for participatory compliance."

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