law enforcement

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local law enforcement agencies such as the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office have taken an educational approach to infractions in lieu of strict enforcement.

Although Pitkin County recently adopted its own “orange plus” level of COVID-19 related restrictions, whose job it is to enforce the added public health measures remains a point of contention. 

“I don’t know that it is any of our jobs to do this,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said during last week’s board of health meeting. “I know that sounds impolite — that it’s not my job — I wish I had a better way to say it.”

Since the onset of the pandemic last spring, DiSalvo has favored ‘education over enforcement’ with respect to carrying out public health orders and believed the county’s police departments agreed.

In July, when the Aspen City Council implemented a mandatory face-covering zone, the Aspen Police Department had to constantly inform individuals of the local public health order.

“We made in the range of about 8,000 contacts,” Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said in an interview Monday. “With the exception of a very small handful, they were very low key. Everybody was very gracious and understanding and it went pretty easy.”

Failure to comply with Aspen’s public health order can result in $50 fines for first-time offenders, $250 citations for second-time offenders and, in particularly egregious circumstances, up to a $2,650 fine and one-year imprisonment.

Linn said a “small number” of officers had come down with COVID-19 symptoms since the onset of the pandemic. Despite the APD having intervened thousands of times to educate people about public health orders, Linn agreed with DiSalvo that it was not law enforcement’s job. 

“Law enforcement is speaking with one voice on this topic,” Linn said. “We’re eight months into this and still having discussions about who should be enforcing this and I think it’s coming time that we’re going to need to actually get that figured out.”

According to Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann, law enforcement officials and deputized public health personnel all had the authority to enforce public health orders.

“I just want to be really clear about that,” Koenemann said. “That’s per our attorney’s office.”

Pitkin County has established a three-person COVID-19 employee and consumer protection team; however, Koenemann said its purpose was to educate various sectors about COVID-related restrictions, not necessarily to enforce them.

“It wasn’t that you were going to get training on how to break up … an informal gathering,” Koenemann said of the three-person team’s responsibilities.

According to epidemiologist Josh Vance, over 23% of Pitkin County’s recent COVID-19 outbreaks were attributable to informal gatherings.

“For me personally, I find it a bit ironic that … on the national level there is this huge discussion of defunding the police and switching to some kind of citizen social worker to handle our job,” said Brian Olson, Snowmass Village police chief. “If there was ever a better circumstance, I think it is that a citizen agency does the education and follow up in regard to the public health orders.” 

Also in Pitkin County, Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott said two officers had contracted COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, which can put small police departments in difficult situations.

“Currently, we have nine patrol staff,” Knott said. “If you lose one you’re losing over 10% of your staff.”

In a follow-up email, Koenemann clarified that she believed law enforcement had a “great philosophy around community policing.”

“Ultimately, we all believe that enforcement should only [happen] in the most egregious of situations and that education and compliance is the first route,” Koenemann stated.

Matthew Bennett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at: matthew@aspendailynews.com