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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Why aren’t more Spokane-area law enforcement officers wearing masks? Some citizens say it sets a bad example

Protesters shout, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” at Spokane police officers during the Occupy Spokane nonviolent protest for Breonna Taylor on Sept. 26.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Protesters shout, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” at Spokane police officers during the Occupy Spokane nonviolent protest for Breonna Taylor on Sept. 26. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Corinne Brown was not shocked to be pulled over for speeding in August. She was going too fast.

She was surprised, however, to find herself within a couple of feet of an unmasked Spokane police officer.

“The officer came up to my driver-side door and got very close to me unmasked,” Brown said. “I wasn’t going to say anything until I got my ticket because I didn’t want to get a higher fine and I was legitimately nervous that might happen.”

After the officer handed her the ticket, Brown asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask.

“He said something along the lines of that he wears a mask when he’s close to people,” Brown said. “He was clearly kind of taken back by the fact that I asked; I was just like, ‘I’m just asking, you’re close to me.’ ”

Spokane police officers are required to follow the county health, city and state guidelines for mask-wearing, department spokesperson Julie Humphreys said.

If officers feel like they can’t get their message through, however, or need the community member they’re contacting to see their facial expressions, they have discretion on when to wear a mask, Humphreys said.

“Communicating with people is more than just speaking,” Humphreys said. “Officers have discretion, too. And, I mean, of course they’re careful; they don’t want to get sick.”

Health district officials agree there are more communication considerations for law enforcement officers than the general public, Kelli Hawkins from the Spokane Regional Health District said.

“Communication and facial expressions are really important in maybe a tense situation,” Hawkins said. “You want to be able to show on your face that, ‘I’m OK and this is a casual conversation,’ right off the bat.”

Statewide health department directives require Washingtonians to wear a face mask that covers their nose and mouth when they are outside of their residence with few exceptions.

“I think that in everything that we’re doing in the pandemic, we’re all having to mitigate what is the best thing for the situation,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of factors that you have to look at. For law enforcement, there’s so much to balance; there’s physical welfare and the safety of our community.”

While exemptions cover many situations in which law enforcement officers may find themselves, some community members feel officers are setting a bad example by unnecessarily removing or not wearing face coverings.

After receiving her ticket, Brown opted to take a traffic school course to remove the infraction from her record. The course is only offered in person.

When Brown arrived at the Spokane Police Academy on Sept. 26, she was surprised to find there was no health screening to enter the class. Her temperature wasn’t taken and not one person asked her health questions. Signage about mask requirements was not posted, Brown said.

When she entered, Brown said about 20 people were already present and classroom tables for the students were not separated.

“They didn’t have any spacing at all,” she said. “Some people had their mask under their nose, some people had full face coverings, some people were eating, some were drinking.”

During the class, Brown said instructors repeatedly removed their masks to drink coffee for extended periods of time.

Humphreys said there is signage indicating masks are required and the room in which the class is held allows for social distancing.

“As for officers taking their masks on and off, again, while presenting information, it is difficult to teach and communicate with a mask on,” Humphreys wrote in an email. “Officers distance themselves, standing at least 6 feet away when in front of the class and instructing.”

Bike team remains unmasked

During recent protests in Spokane, officers often did not wear masks and could be seen speaking to protesters and each other in close proximity.

“It’s incredibly rare that you actually see one of the Spokane police officers wearing masks,” said Kim Schmidt, a member of Stronger Together Spokane who helps organize and sponsor protests on a variety of issues in the area.

Schmidt said officers with the Spokane Police Department’s Tactical Team who work large-scale events and operate the Bicycle Rapid Response Team are often seen talking to each other and protesters in close proximity without masks.

The team is comprised of officers from different departments within SPD. Most of them work patrol in various precincts, meaning if a member of the bike team were to contract COVID-19 and it spread on the team, it could spread to various police precincts.

Officers on the bike team are not required to wear masks, Humphreys said.

“They will not be wearing them on protests and in groups,” Humphreys said. “That’s not part of the bike patrol and the reason is they’re talking on the radio, they’re communicating with people. It’s an officer safety issue.”

Officers wear helmets with a chin strap, which Humphreys said makes it difficult to take masks on and off.

During a recent training session, bike team officers were inside receiving instruction while not wearing masks, something Humphreys said was not a problem.

The class was held in the largest room the department could find with only three to four people at a table, Humphreys said.

“They’re eating and drinking through their classes in there,” she said. “That’s more of an internal thing of the classes eating and drinking together.”

Hawkins said the Department of Labor & Industries has clear guidelines for workplace gatherings.

“We can only go by guidance that has been set,” Hawkins said. “First, you should have groups that are six or less, according to L&I guidance. We should be masked and distanced of 6 feet if we’re meeting for business purposes.”

Hawkins cited a recent study by the CDC that linked COVID-19 spread to dining out in restaurants where people are unmasked and air is recirculated, allowing respiratory droplets to spread.

“It really is important to understand how the virus spreads before you make the decision to eat with people outside of your household,” Hawkins said. “Especially while you’re having conversation and talking, then you’re releasing even more droplets.”

Since the start of the pandemic, seven Spokane police officers have tested positive for COVID-19.

“What we’re seeing in outbreaks is people are really doing well in public and in their workplace,” Hawkins said.

It’s more common for people to attend private gatherings outside of work, then bring the virus to the office. Upon hearing the number of officers who have tested positive, Hawkins said, that scenario likely applies to SPD.

“That makes me think, well, they contracted it and brought it into the organization, and they took proper measures to prevent spread in the workplace,” Hawkins said.

Justice Forall, 28, was arrested at a recent protest and said none of the officers who arrested him or booked him into jail wore a mask.

“I think one of the reasons I was booked was because I was telling the officers to wear masks,” he said. “And then when I was in jail, just overall they didn’t care about masks.”

A video of Forall’s arrest shows him yell at unmasked officers on bicycles, “Where’s your mask? Where’s your mask?”

The officer responds, “You’re going to get arrested. You’ll go to jail. You’ve had your warning.”

Forall was charged on suspicion of obstructing a law enforcement officer. While being booked, Forall said he asked the officer booking him if they cared about COVID-19 and were taking it seriously. They said no, Forall recounted.

“In total, there were only two officers wearing masks and one nurse,” he said.

In the Spokane County Jail, detention services personnel are required to wear masks at indoor or confined public settings, according to a mask memo sent to department personnel on May 20.

Both staff and visiting professionals are required to wear a cloth or paper mask at all times on jail premises. Staff was asked to reserve N95 masks for dealing with suspected or positive COVID-19 inmates.

The only specifically listed exception is during break periods, when people may remove their masks in the designated break area if they are physically distanced from others.

Troubles at traffic school

Retired chiropractor Dr. Jerry Porter was pulled over for speeding in September by a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy. The deputy came within a few feet of Porter while unmasked to hand him his ticket.

“He did come close, of course, to hand me the ticket,” Porter said.

The deputy explained Porter’s options to deal with the ticket, which included taking a traffic school course out at the Sheriff’s Training Center in Newman Lake. Porter asked if there was an online option for the course but was a told courses are only offered in person.

He signed up for an early class on Oct. 10. Attendees were asked to bring masks, so Porter said he was surprised when the two deputies standing inside near the training center door were unmasked.

“To get into it, I had to walk past two officers who were not masked,” he said. “It kind of set my hackles up.”

Porter said his temperature was not taken and he was not asked health questions prior to entering the classroom.

“There was no prescreening for anything – no temperature, no questions of if you’ve had COVID or been around anyone who had COVID,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t know what I was walking into.”

Sheriff’s office spokesman Mark Gregory said attendees are provided handouts with health questions and COVID-19 information. Instructors go over those procedures before class begins, Gregory said.

When Porter entered the classroom, about 20 people were already there, seated one to a table.

The tables were a few feet apart, which Porter said was fine horizontally, but vertically, attendees were less than 6 feet apart.

“When I got in there and sat down and turned around and looked at people, about half of them weren’t wearing masks,” Porter said. “So I just got up and walked out.”

Porter explained to the officers that he didn’t feel safe with people indoors not wearing masks.

“I told them I didn’t feel safe,” Porter said. “They said that masks were not required.”

The sheriff’s office said that while attendees are required to wear masks when up and walking around, masks are not required in class while seated because physical distancing measures are in place.

As a whole, Gregory said the sheriff’s office has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 within the department. Fewer than 10 deputies have contracted the virus, with all of those cases being tracked down to exposures outside of work, Gregory said.

Deputies are required to follow public health orders and recommendations when it comes to mask wearing, Gregory said. In a memo sent to deputies providing guidance about mask wearing, deputies were told there may be situations when wearing a face covering is impractical, and deputies should be prepared to justify why that is the case.

“You look at how many contacts law enforcement in this region have had since March when everything started hyping up, and I haven’t heard of a ton of complaints,” Gregory said. “I’m not trying to say we’re perfect, and we try to follow all the guidelines, but we also have a job to do. Safety of the public and all of our deputies is our No. 1 priority.”

Since Porter felt unsafe taking the traffic school course, he now has to deal with his ticket through the courts.

Porter was refunded for the cost of the course and will have to take care of this ticket through the legal system, Gregory said.

“Remember that the traffic class is an option it’s not a guarantee,” Gregory said.

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