Added deliveries, fewer calls, more cleaning: How COVID-19 looks for local law enforcement

Mike Mastin mug.jpg

BEMIDJI -- With the stay-at-home order currently in place, the call volume for local law enforcement has dropped significantly. This is giving them more time to analyze how calls can be safely handled with less contact, sanitize equipment and offer services back to the community -- like grocery and prescription pick-ups.

New way of handling calls

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said many calls that used to entail an officer dispatch are now handled over the phone.

Calls such as parking complaints, property damage, or reporting blight law infractions will all be handled in this way.

“There are some calls where we just have to respond,” he added. “We’ve had some more significant assaults, domestic assaults, people with felony warrants -- you have to respond, you have to deal with them, sometimes you have to take them into custody, and we rely on our officers to use their best judgment to use PPE (personal protective equipment) in those instances.”

Mastin acknowledged that while handling many of these issues over the phone is efficient, it is rather impersonal.


“Really anything where it’s not an immediate need for response, we’ve tried to morph into this call-in service,” Mastin explained. “It works, but I don’t think it gives that same personal feel as being in person. But it’s still service and it keeps everybody safe.”

Personal protective equipment

While law enforcement officers have always had personal protective equipment due to the nature of their work, Mastin said officers are currently not mandated to wear medical PPE, like gloves or face masks, at every call.

This is primarily due to the lack of supplies, he explained.

“If we did (mandate PPE), we would run out of PPE within weeks, so the reality is we can’t wear them at every call,” he said. “We leave it up to the discretion of the officer.”

Officers are currently required to wear masks at medical calls and death scene investigations.

In some rapidly changing emergency situations, there isn’t always time to put on PPE, Mastin added.

“You’re trying to be there to help somebody and provide that service immediately, and you know, this is still pretty new. You don’t think to put on a pair of latex gloves to go into a domestic (call),” he said. “That’s something we’ve never done, we’re having to create new habits.”

Wearing gloves all day long is also not an option, Mastin said, because just as many germs are transferred if the gloves aren’t changed between every new surface touched.


Call volume

Calls for service have significantly decreased since the implementation of the stay-at-home order.

“Now, we still do have a handful (of calls) and we still do have some significant calls that have happened, but overall the number of calls has decreased,” Mastin said. “I think that’s just a product of people obeying the stay-at-home order, and with fewer people out and about doing things, there’s just less going on.”

While the call volume for service has decreased, call volume for COVID-19 information and clarification on the executive orders is still at an unacceptable level.

“Don’t call 911, call 211, if you have general questions,” Mastin reiterated. “It’s an information source, it’s not an emergency number.”

Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel said there are aspects of the executive orders that aren't crystal clear for law enforcement either, and he encourages the public to read the orders fully and look online for answers before contacting law enforcement.

“There’s a lot of what’s being put in the (executive) orders that we as law enforcement even don’t know what the true intent was,” Beitel said.

“Everybody is really, really doing a nice job of rolling with all of the punches of this thing,” he added.

Beitel had the idea to offer a grocery and prescription delivery service to those who need it with the extra free time the officers may now have. Currently, the Bemidji Police Department, Blackduck Police Department, and Beltrami County Sheriff's Office have teamed up to offer this service.


“The demand for officer time has been reduced, so we are able to provide that,” Mastin explained. “Now if things turn around and we start going back to the call volume we once had, we would have to severely limit the amount of those deliveries we could do.”

Need to stay well

Both Beitel and Mastin emphasized how devastating it would be for any officers or deputies to get sick, because the departments are already short-staffed.

Beitel said the biggest thing he has learned so far throughout this situation is the grave importance of keeping staff healthy because there are not enough staff to continue operations if officers get sick.

“If we get sick during a pandemic like this, it’s going to wipe out a lot of law enforcement,” he said. “What if it gets into my dispatch center? Who is going to answer the 911 calls?”

Local law enforcement is beginning to cross train employees to help cover other positions if needed, Beitel said. For example, a bailiff at the courthouse may be trained to be a 911 dispatcher or a corrections officer.

This is not a perfect solution, because training is time-consuming. “There’s a lot of work involved in that,” he explained. “It takes us a year to train a dispatcher.”

“We’re a 24/7 operation, we can’t just say, ‘well, we don’t have any deputies today because we are sick,’” Beitel added.

“The reality is,” Mastin said, “if we start losing officers to an illness, we are really going to be struggling to provide service to the community, so we really need to keep our people safe and healthy.”


He said he is often reminding officers to “make sure that you’re continually cleaning that duty belt, cleaning your car, not just for you but for those that we come in contact with.”

Ernie Beitel mug.jpg
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel<br/>

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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