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‘Law Enforcement Is Last Resort’: Alachua County Sheriff On Stay-At-Home Orders

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There’s been growing curiosity in Florida on an evolving question of the coronavirus response: How will law enforcement enforce stay-at-home orders?

Fort Lauderdale announced Friday that residents may face legal action or fines for violating the city’s stay-at-home order.  Broward and Miami-Dade County issued similar orders, in suit.

North Central Florida is no exception.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell turned to Facebook last week to address concerns on how the office would approach countywide social distancing restrictions as some counties in Florida have responded to COVID-19 by taking action against citizens who violate their stay-at-home orders.

Darnell emphasized that law enforcement will be the last resort in regards to violations of Alachua County’s emergency order amendment enforcing social distancing that went into effect a week ago.

“None of us want to be in this circumstance, but it is going to get worse, likely, before it gets better,” Darnell said. “However, the length of time it will go on is dependent upon each of us.”

The first contact for violations is the new COVID-19 Community Resource Portal found on the county’s website where residents can submit reports and explore frequently asked questions, according to the ACSO spokesman Frank Kinsey.

“We’re not out aggressively seeking groups of people, we’re responding to reports of where they are,” Kinsey said. “As of right now, and talking with the county, most of their requests are regarding businesses.”

The sheriff’s office supported social distancing by closing its doors to the public and allowing most of its employees to work from home, Kinsey said.

Alachua County deputies are also using alternate methods — in conducting calls and issuing citations — to keep jail numbers down, Kinsey said.

“Jail numbers are as low as they’ve been within the last two years,” Kinsey said.

All existing inmates were tested for COVID-19 using CDC guidelines and those newly admitted are now screened upon arrival, he said.

So far, two inmates were sent for testing and both results were negative, he said.

Peripheral counties’ sheriff offices have adopted similar strategies.

Brad Smith, with the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office, said that although their office remains open, it is following procedures based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dispatchers are performing extra questioning to pinpoint medical red flags that point to COVID-19 and alerting officers to use personal protective equipment (PPE).

The deputies are also no longer transporting inmates between facilities and instead will hold them until they’re screened, he said.

Protocol has adapted to the current community’s needs. One example of this: The young members of the Law Enforcement Exploring program is assisting a local food pantry, he said.

Smith said reported crime in Bradford County has decreased, a trend that reminds him of the early days of the recession in 2008.

“And I think a lot of that’s due to the fact that people are staying close to their families and trying to take care of one another,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Columbia County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Murray Smith said the county’s rate of reported crime has remained the same as before COVID-19. While minimizing field calls — similar to the strategies of  Alachua and Bradford county sheriff’s offices — domestic violence and DUI reports must still be investigated in person, she said.

“We’re going to be responsible and do what the state and the CDC have directed,” Smith said. “But the public needs to be aware: We’re not going to jeopardize public safety to try to be responsible.”

About Tatiana Navarro

Tatiana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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