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Enforcing COVID restrictions

Local law enforcement hopes to educate, not arrest violators

FRANKLIN

Those who defy Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order banning groups of more than 10 people could find themselves charged with a class 1 misdemeanor, which under Virginia law means a $2,500 fine and/or up to a year in jail.

That said, local law enforcement agencies hope to resolve any violations through education rather than arrests.

“The Franklin Police Department will respond to calls for service related to the governor’s order,” said FPD Chief Steve Patterson. “Upon arrival, the officers will assess the situation and make a determination if the responsible party is in fact violating the governor’s order.”

If a violation is deemed to have occurred, “the officers will provide a copy of the order to the responsible party, educate them on the meaning of it and provide a warning to disperse,” Patterson added. “Failure to do so or reoccurring calls for service may end up in a summons being issued or in a worst-case scenario, arrest.”

“Our biggest weapon in our arsenal is education,” agreed Lt. Tommy Potter, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office in neighboring Isle of Wight County. “We will make every attempt toe ducate the public on the importance of social distancing and the seriousness of the situation at hand. Where we find gatherings that violate the current order, No. 55, our first priority will be to educate those involved and as we do with every situation, handle it accordingly.”

Calls for service at the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office have remained relatively constant over the past several months, Potter added, with no real fluctuation seen yet as a result of the COVID-19 virus. In fact, overall calls for service are down in the town of Windsor, according to the town’s police chief, Rodney “Dan” Riddle.

“Officers who come into contact with citizens violating the mandates set forth in the governor’s executive orders would receive a warning and a request to comply with these temporary measures,” Riddle said. “Arrest and prosecution of citizens would be reserved for serious or continued violations and only as a last resort to protect the health of the public … The citizens of the town are overall doing an excellent job in following the guidelines as set forth by the governor during this public health crisis.”

When asked about the possibility of additional restrictions on people’s movement – such as a curfew – Potter said only the local municipality or the governor can order a curfew in place. Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors, according to county spokesman Don Robertson, has not had any discussions relative to a local curfew. Franklin, however, already has a curfew ordinance, which is restricted to minors. That ordinance states that it is unlawful for anyone under age 18, with a few exceptions, to be present on any street, road, alley, park, vacant lot, place of amusement or other public place in the city, nor in any vehicle operating or parked, between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

“In the end, we all have to remember that how we, especially the police, treat people today can hurt us or help us in the future,” Patterson said. “If we want to maintain the public’s trust, we have to be cautious of our enforcement of these orders and any type of proposed curfew. It is imperative that the police investigate these allegations appropriately and when necessary take enforcement actions.”

“We are all in this together and we are learning to live differently during these unusual times,” added Maj. Camden Cobb, spokesman for the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office. “We are encouraging our citizens to be as safe as possible during this time and to only go out if absolutely necessary, even if they meet one of the order’s exceptions.”

Our office is working with community members to educate and inform them of the requirements and exceptions of the order,” Cobb said. “The focus of our office will be on the prohibited gathering of groups of 10 or more people.”

STEPHEN H. COWLES, staff writer, contributed to this story.