A New Threat

Local law enforcement says COVID-19 is changing how they do their job and interact with the public

By Justin Franz
Trooper Laramie Stefani of the Montana Highway Patrol wears a face mask he picked up at Hartstone Designs, a new Kalispell company manufacturing face masks. Stefani picked up a box of face masks to distribute to his coworkers on April 8, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Every time Trooper Laramie Stefani pulls someone over, he has to take a few extra moments now to suit up. Latex gloves? Check. Glasses? Check. Mask? Check.

“It’s sort of like you’re suiting up for battle,” he said.

The threat that Stefani, a six-year veteran of the Montana Highway Patrol, is preparing for is the same that has dramatically altered life for everyone in recent weeks: novel coronavirus.

While many people are sheltering-in-place and limiting their exposure to other people, Stefani and other members of law enforcement are still on the job trying to keep the community safe. However, coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has complicated that effort.

Stefani said troopers have been directed to wear masks, gloves, glasses and even raincoats when they interact with people. While officers like Stefani always face threats, he said the coronavirus poses a risk unlike any other and plays into nearly every decision he makes at work. Instead of taking a driver’s license and registration when he pulls someone over, Stefani now has the driver hold the documents up to the window so that he can write down the information. He also gives people the option of having traffic tickets emailed, and in some cases people can pay their tickets onsite with a credit card number. Despite those changes to improve safety for the officers and the public, Stefani said he still worries about contracting the virus.

“It’s constantly in the back of your mind,” he said. “I was always kind of a germophobe but now it’s on steroids … And you’re constantly thinking, ‘Did I touch something bad? Did I wash my hands enough?’”

Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Sgt. Eric Morrison said that he and the deputies he commands have had to change how they interact with the public in numerous ways. Early on during the pandemic, the sheriff’s office, like many law enforcement agencies, announced that deputies would only be physically responding to incidents where there was a danger to the public or a violent crime. For most incidents, the officers now try to do their work over the phone, including for crimes like theft. Morrison said that can be frustrating for crime victims, but most understand the unprecedented situation the community is facing.

Morrison said that while Flathead County’s roads have been a lot quieter, especially at night, officers are responding to more domestic-violence situations.

Perhaps no local officer’s day-to-day life has changed more than Deputy Paula Sullivan, the school resource officer based at Bigfork High School. She said since school has closed, she and the other local resource officer, Brandy Arnoux, have been back on the streets patrolling. However, they didn’t want the students they see every day to think they had forgotten about them so they recently made a video of them reading stories for the younger students.

“We’ve made a lot of great connections with these kids and we just wanted to let them know that we’re still here and still thinking about them,” she said.

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