Over the past week, public buildings around Carlton County began shutting their doors to the public in an attempt to slow the spread COVID-19.
City offices in Cloquet closed to the public March 18 and many Carlton County offices began appointment-only access to the public Tuesday, March 24.
The Cloquet Police Department and Carlton County Sheriff’s Office are both trying to limit personal contact, but both are grappling with the idea of public safety without public contact.
“With this pandemic now, we have only so many officers and the idea that maybe half of our department could go down due to this virus, it could bring our police force to a standstill,” interim Cloquet Police Chief Derek Randall said. “The question is how do we try to mitigate this threat of this virus and still do our jobs. I don’t think anyone has come up with the perfect response to that and it is literally evolving hour-by-hour.”
CPD officers and sheriff’s deputies remain on patrol and are responding to calls for service, but what they respond to in-person is changing. An outbreak among CPD officers could be especially problematic since the department is currently down six officers. Randall said he hopes to fill two of those positions in early April, but it will still take time to get those officers trained.
“We are here to respond to emergencies, and if it is not an emergency it may look a little bit different,” Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said. “It might be over the phone, because we are also trying to practice our own social distancing to flatten the curve and make sure that we still have staff that can respond to emergencies.”
Lake stressed people could continue to call 911 for emergency service and operators are still working, but also asked that people reporting crimes call instead of coming into the building.
Law enforcement officers have faced a “barrage” of emails, Randall said, in the past weeks of different communications and directives about law enforcement during the COVID-19 crisis and trying to minimize contact between officers and the public.
“We quickly looked at what things we were dealing with face to face, in our own lobby with walk in traffic,” Randall said. “One of those things was gun permits — permits to purchase — predatory offenders checking in and people wanting to report a crime that they didn’t want to call 911 for but want it documented.”
With Gov. Tim Walz's order to directing Minnesotans to stay at home, Cloquet's public buildings closed and the CPD suspended applications for permits to purchase firearms, ATV licenses and report copies. The CPD still offers an online form for reporting some crimes. Randall acknowledged he is still getting the hang of creating the fillable PDF documents, but encouraged people to make use of the tools.
He said the police department still wants to know about crimes, even if they aren't emergencies.
“We could then increase our patrols in the area and try to figure out who is causing problems,” he said.
Lake said another priority is keeping the Carlton County Jail free of the coronavirus, for the safety of both employees and inmates.
“We are looking at alternatives to incarceration for those that could wait and be summonsed into court at a later time,” Lake said. “We’re not ignoring the crimes, but we’re looking at other ways that we can process things. Ultimately we want to make sure the jail is here and available for those that need to be in custody for the public’s safety.”
Randall and Lake said they believed calls so far during the crisis have been down, but Lake thought that might just be the number of people staying home.
However, the longer people are stuck in their homes, there is a potential for an increase in domestic violence calls.
“That is definitely a concern with people being more confined in their homes and in close proximity,” Lake said. “With the added stress of financial burdens from not being able to work and there is so much uncertainty with this — that brings an added level of stress to people.”
CPD officers are also spending additional time cleaning and sanitizing workspaces, gear, boots and particularly squad cars, which are shared between department members, Randall said.
“We’re also just trying to still do our jobs and deal with the anxiety and reality of a two-week incubation period where we go home every night to our families,” he said. “With no testing available now, we have to isolate ourselves the best we can.”
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