Focus will continue to be on education first; not enforcement
When Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Health John Wiesman announced that a statewide mandatory face covering order will take effect Friday, it was revealed that violators could be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
Don’t expect law enforcement officials in Clark County to be issuing any such citations, at least at this point.
“To date, the deputies of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office have not cited or arrested anyone violating the governor’s previous orders,’’ said Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins in a Wednesday news release. “Instead of enforcement, we have taken a posture of education. This has worked well, and it would seem the Clark County community has been doing well in response to this virus. The hospitals have abundant capacity, and individuals can get tested almost immediately if they suspect they are sick with COVID-19.
“However, there seems to be an expectation that law enforcement is the group to enforce social distancing, stay-at-home orders, business restrictions and now wearing a mask in public,’’ Atkins said. “We need to move away from our deputies and local law enforcement as the enforcers of the COVID-19 virus guidance. These encounters have the potential to quickly escalate tensions between the police and the public. Forcing my deputies to have oversight and enforcement of mask violations creates an untenable situation.’’
Inslee’s order requires every Washingtonian to wear a facial covering when in a public space, as mandated by the public health order signed by Wiseman. This includes both indoor and outdoor public spaces.
Atkins’ position on the face covering requirements were echoed by other police chiefs throughout Clark County.
“I think there is a concern that starting Friday, the police are going to stop every citizen they see not wearing a mask and write them a ticket. This is not the case,’’ said Ridgefield Police Chief John Brooks told Clark County Today. “We love this community and want our citizens to be safe, but to hand out mask violation tickets in a hasty manner, without a concern for what it is we are trying to accomplish, would be counterproductive to the goals of the police department serving its community.’’
“Our approach will most likely mimic most LEA’s (Law Enforcement Agencies), and that will be first and foremost to educate and help citizens come into compliance voluntarily,’’ La Center Police Chief Marc Denney told Clark County Today. “Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to provide face masks out to the masses. If necessary, most of our city facilities will have facemasks available for the public if they enter one of our facilities and do not have their own and need to conduct business. Our officers will lead by example and wear their face mask when in contact with the public directly.’’
“Our plan will be the same as what we are currently doing,’’ Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn told Clark County Today. “We educate people on the requirement and ask for compliance. We do have the authority to cite but haven’t had to do so because people have been cooperating. I understand this is frustrating to some members of the community and the constraints are inconvenient but it’s essential that we follow the governor’s order.’’
Steinbronn and Atkins both asked members of their communities not to call the police when they believe they see someone not complying with the governor’s order.
“I would ask that the community refrain from calling 3-1-1 if the only violation they are observing is lack of mask wearing in public spaces,’’ Steinbronn said. “The public can call or email our department and our response will depend on the totality of the circumstances of the complaint.’’
Atkins added that assumptions should not be made about why another person is not wearing a face covering.
“Some people have conditions or circumstances that would make wearing a cloth face covering difficult or dangerous,’’ Atkins said. “Just wear your mask and stay six feet away.”
Public health and safety
Sheriff Atkins stressed that Washington law enforcement agencies continue to focus on education and engagement regarding state orders related to the coronavirus crisis.
“The statewide face covering order is a public health and safety measure, it is not a mandate for law enforcement to detain, cite or arrest violators but rather an evidence-based and safety focused directive meant to slow the spread of a potentially deadly disease,’’ Atkins said. “I believe that this is primarily a public health matter, not a law enforcement matter. I have tremendous confidence in my deputies as to their judgment and discretion in determining how to best address potential violations of these matters as they are observed. However, as a general matter we do not have the capacity to respond to complaints of “COVID-19 virus” violations, whether they are business violations, social distancing, or mask violations. In extreme instances, deputies can enforce this law through citation or arrest, but I am encouraging them under all circumstances to resolve these matters otherwise.’’
Chief Brooks offered similar thoughts.
“Our goal is, and always will be, a safe community and to help people to understand before we move into an enforcement direction,’’ Brooks said. “It is important for people to understand the police don’t create the laws. That is the purview of elected officials. The police are there to keep people and the community safe.’’
Denney said the approach of law enforcement officials has worked in recent weeks and months.
“We have not had issues with non-compliance, usually it comes down to most not being aware of the restrictions or orders, and once we educate them, they seem to acknowledge what we are doing and come into compliance,’’ Denney said.
Atkins pointed out that there are important resources available to anyone with additional questions regarding COVID-19 or wearing of face coverings and masks. “I strongly suggest you avail yourselves of these important community resources,’’ Atkins said.
Washington State Coronavirus Response https://coronavirus.wa.gov/information-for/you-and-your-family/face-masks-or-cloth-face-covering