Laws don’t shut down during pandemic; Steamboat police remind public to follow rules amid rise in calls
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This month, Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen has noticed a troubling trend. Though the number of people in the city has decreased, particularly due to visitor restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, calls for service have increased compared to last year.
Even more concerning to Christensen is the fact he’s fielded complaints from people who, after getting speeding tickets or parking citations, said they thought police were not enforcing those types of crimes amid the challenges caused by the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, which has shuttered businesses and forced people to remain in their homes.
Community service officers enforcing parking restrictions have been berated by people who accuse the Steamboat Springs Police Department of exploiting locals for profit, according to Christensen, which he said is simply untrue. Others have asked why the Police Department is still conducting traffic stops and issuing tickets considering the COVID-19 crisis.
The police chief’s answer is simple: “Because that’s my job.”
The laws still exist, and his officers are still enforcing them.
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Christensen recorded the uptick in calls for service on Tuesday, March 24, before Routt County enacted further restrictions on gathering and lodging in the form of two public health orders, which has elicited even more calls regarding violations of the restrictions.
As of Tuesday, the Police Department had responded to 906 cases this month, an increase of about 11% compared to March of last year.
“That was surprising to me, to be perfectly frank,” Christensen said.
Amid health concerns, the Police Department has limited its response to certain types of officer-initiated enforcement measures, such as conducting fewer traffic stops. This is a way, Christensen said, to reduce exposure to people who may have COVID-19.
“Yet our calls continue to increase,” he said.
Christensen anticipates a further increase in calls regarding the new stay-at-home order, which Gov. Jared Polis issued on Wednesday. Since then, the Police Department has received at least seven calls regarding possible violations of public health orders, according to case records.
For example on Wednesday, police received a report of a group of about 20 kids at the Bear Creek Skate Park. The gathering ban prohibits more than five people from being at the park at a time. Officers arrived and notified the children of the ban.
“They were compliant, and we moved on,” Christensen said.
To reduce the risk of exposure to any disease, the Police Department has implemented several policies amid the pandemic. In addition to reducing the number of self-initiated enforcement measures, officers have been resolving more cases over the phone rather than in person.
Dispatch also has added some medical questions to their list of inquiries when they receive a call for service. Every patrol car is disinfected between shifts, Christensen added, and officers wear personal protection equipment during calls that require contact with people who may be sick.
The lobby of the combined law enforcement facility, which the Police Department shares with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, has been closed to the public since March 16. Personnel are urged to limit their time inside the building and to practice social distancing between coworkers.
The Sheriff’s Office has enacted similar health measures, according to Undersheriff Doug Scherar.
Both agencies have issued court summons in certain cases where they otherwise would have made an arrest. For instance, some people who have been accused of driving under the influence receive a summons with a court date and then are released to a sober party, Scherar said.
This procedure does not lessen the possible punishment for such crimes, he said, but it mitigates the risk of exposure within the Routt County Jail.
“If we are putting handcuffs on you and taking you to the jail, it is pretty important,” Christensen said.
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