City police prepared to enforce social distancing, but no citations issued yet

By Andrew Jenner, publisher

After a spike last week in the number of local COVID-19 cases (soon followed by the city’s first confirmed outbreak in a nursing home) Harrisonburg officials used a press release to emphasize the importance of “strict social distancing measures” and remind people that compliance isn’t technically optional.

“If you are outside in a group of more than 10 people and in violation of Gov. Northam’s order, you will receive a citation from the Harrisonburg Police Department,” the release read.

As of Thursday morning, however, things hadn’t gotten to that point. Police Chief Eric English said his officers are responding to calls about possible violations, but so far had yet to issue summons to anyone for violating the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Police Chief Eric English // file photo

“Citing individuals is our last resort, but we will do that if we have to, because this is something that is very serious,” English said. “We have to make sure that our citizens are taking it seriously.”

As the exact rules in place have evolved over the course of the last month, English said much of the department’s effort to enforce social distancing practices have taken the form of outreach, including leaving flyers on cars in some neighborhoods. That’s also been a priority of the city’s.

“This has moved so quickly, and recommendations and orders have changed so often, that we want to make sure people know why they are getting cited by police if that is to happen,” Director of Communications Michael Parks said in an email. “So, yes, we are enforcing the rules on social gatherings and staying 6 feet apart, but we are also putting a lot of effort into making sure people know what those rules are instead of just immediately issuing a citation.”

COVID-19 protocols have significant effect on overall HPD operations

Beyond the outreach and call response directly related to the ongoing pandemic, English said the HPD has experienced “drastic changes” in the way it operates. For example, the face-to-face fundamentals of community policing — a major priority of English’s since he took command in 2018 — aren’t compatible with social distancing.

That’s meant more reports taken by telephone and officers minimizing close contact with people as much as possible in order to protect everyone’s health. No HPD officers have tested positive for COVID-19, English said.

 One month into the statewide shutdown, English added, total calls for service have remained steady, and police have yet to observe any ripple effects, such as increasing crime as a result of higher unemployment.

County sheriff’s office also has not issued citations

 Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson told The Citizen that his office is hoping to minimize any formal enforcement of the emergency order.

“We have gotten a very few calls, and they were handled reasonably through willful compliance rather than enforcement, which is exactly how we prefer it,” Hutcheson wrote in an email. “[Our department is] trying to follow the same guidelines as everyone else and hoping that if everyone does their part then this thing will resolve even sooner than expected.”

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