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Law enforcement taking precautions amid coronavirus outbreak, but still serving

Law enforcement taking precautions amid coronavirus outbreak, but still serving

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: March 22-28 series
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Mandan Police Officer Dylan McAlexander sprays disinfectant in the back seat of his cruiser as part of the cleaning routine he undergoes multiple times a day due to the coronavirus outbreak. "I do what I can," McAlexander said. "I don't want to be the cause" of further spreading the virus.

The encroachment of the coronavirus on North Dakota has staff and administrators at the Burleigh Morton Detention Center and other law enforcement agencies taking steps to allow business to be conducted while still keeping inmates, themselves and the public safe.

Most of that business is done, so to speak, through the front door by attorneys and the visiting public. If such a change were warranted, that door could be locked and not used for a time.

That’s not an option for the back door, where law officers bring anyone they’ve arrested.

“We can’t just shut down for two weeks and say, 'come back,'” Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben said.

That rings true for any law enforcement and emergency personnel who are taking precautions to protect themselves but also making an effort to help stop the spread of the disease.

Department precautions

Leben said he and his staff have been meeting for some time about precautions to keep themselves and inmates safe. When a case was confirmed in North Dakota on March 11, “it became more real to us,” he said.

The sheriff’s department updated plans formed in 2009 to battle the H1N1 virus. Programs and in-person visitation have been cut back, and the usual face-to-face attorney visits are now conducted through glass. Staff members are asked to report to administration for screening if they have traveled to an area where the virus is active or if they might have come in direct contact with someone who is infected. Visitors are screened if they appear sick and must wear a mask if their visit requires face-to-face contact.

But deputies in the field are responding to calls as usual, Leben said.

“We have to provide public safety despite the risk,” he said.

Patrol, detention and courthouse staff can access kits, which Leben said are staged throughout the agency. The kits include a protective suit, boots, tape, hood, respirator, goggles and gloves.

"It eliminates any sort of exposure to any part of the body," Chief Deputy Gary Schaffer said.

None of the deputies has yet used one. But law officers in the area are taking other precautions.

For example, officers like Mandan's Dylan McAlexander routinely spray down their squad cars with disinfectant.

"I do what I can," McAlexander said. "I don't want to be the cause" of further spreading the virus.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has suspended all contact visitation at its facilities, including the North Dakota State Penitentiary and Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck, and the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England. The department does not have a confirmed case in a staff member or inmate, and no one is being monitored. Email, phone and video visitation with inmates is still available.

The Bismarck Police Department has suspended department tours, citizen ride-alongs and presentations to large groups. If possible, residents are asked to make online reports at http://bit.ly/bpdreporting.

Mandan police officers are being told to keep their distance from anyone with flulike symptoms and to wear protective gear -- gloves, masks, eye protection -- if contact can’t be avoided, Deputy Chief Lori Flaten said. The department is pushing officers and staff to wipe down squad cars and work areas, limit the number of people that respond to a call, and try to handle minor calls over the phone.

“We can’t stop operations,” Flaten said. “Let’s just make sure we’re aware of what’s out there.”

Sound advice

The advice to watch for symptoms is echoed by Renae Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, who has outlined precautions with area civic leaders and law enforcement and said she’s “met with them to make sure they have what they need.” Emergency dispatchers are asking callers to look for possible signs and symptoms of the disease.

“If the risk is there, it’s communicated,” Moch said. Responders then have the opportunity to don personal protective equipment before making contact.

A possible side-effect -- anxiety -- could affect anyone, Moch said, because the virus and the disease caused by it are drawing considerable attention and the amount of information can be overwhelming.

“This is all new to people,” Moch said. “Even for kids, it’s unprecedented that schools are closed. They’re out of their normal routine.”

Some simple steps -- deep breaths and mindfulness -- can have a calming effect.

“Control what you can control,” she said.

Stocking up

Some gun owners are trying to take a little more control, as well, not out of fear but because they don't like to run out of ammo.

A few more guns and more ammo than usual -- especially the more popular recreational and practice rounds -- have left the shelves as the pandemic spreads. Double H Guns owner Darryl Howard likens it to similar unusual situations in 1992 -- when a ban was placed on high-capacity magazines -- and 2013 -- when a push was made for tougher gun control laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.

The run is less obvious in North Dakota than elsewhere because the state’s population is heavy on shooters and they generally stay stocked, Howard said.

He added that previous sales spikes and shortages came about because “gun guys were their own worst enemy."

“This time the whole damn world is on tilt,” he said.

The popular 5.56 mm and .22 rimfire rounds are selling quickly, as is 9 mm handgun ammo. Howard finds himself in a situation in which he has to hang on to some of that ammo.

“I need ammo to sell guns,” he said.

The increase in gun sales also is spurred by the time of year, Howard said. Some people were planning to buy a gun, were waiting for warmer weather, have received their income tax refund or simply “got the itch,” he said.

“This just prodded them,” he said.

Howard as coach of the Century High School trapshooting team has taken precautions at the range to protect his team. Shooters no longer gather in the clubhouse, instead going from the parking lot to the firing line in squads of five to shoot their league scores. From there they go back to the parking lot.

The shady side

The fear and upheaval that accompany any such crisis also present an opportunity for a criminal element to prey. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is warning that scammers are using the pandemic as a way to obtain personal information or sell bogus products.

People should:

  • be on the lookout for phony emails that appear to come from government entities, especially if they encourage a click on a link for more information
  • ignore any offers of a miracle cure or protection against coronavirus
  • be cautious of calls or texts claiming a payment is needed for testing, or stating personal information must be submitted as part of a government response to the virus
  • beware of fraudulent charities seeking donations. A charitable organization’s registration can be confirmed on the North Dakota secretary of state’s website, at http://sos.nd.gov/, or by contacting the state’s Consumer Protection Division by phone at 1-800-472-2600 or email at ndag@nd.gov

“A healthy dose of skepticism will stop the scam artists in their tracks,” Stenehjem said.

Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said suspected fraud schemes related to the coronavirus can be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline -- 1-866-720-5721 -- or to the center's e-mail address, disaster@leo.gov.

Courts slowed, still function

Scammers or anyone else caught breaking the law shouldn't expect that the judicial system will look the other way, even though some precautions are in place at the state's courthouses.

Federal courthouses in Bismarck and North Dakota's other large cities are remaining open, with most business continuing as usual. However, people who are considered at high risk for having COVID-19 will be denied entry to U.S. District Court.

This includes people who have recently traveled to, or had contact with someone who traveled to, global hot spots China, South Korea, Italy or Iran; people who have been asked by a medical professional to self-quarantine; people who have been diagnosed with the disease or had contact with someone who has been diagnosed; and people showing symptoms.

State courts have suspended jury trials not already in progress until April 24. Bench trials and hearings will go on at the discretion of judges. Guardianship reviews are suspended until June 1. Mandatory hearings -- those required in certain juvenile, family and mental health matters, protection orders, and initial appearances when a person is detained, for example -- will go on.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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