On the front lines: Law enforcement, court staff, attorneys face daily challenges while coping with COVID-19
Ten months in, everyone has pandemic fatigue.
Essential workers, in particular, have spent the last 10 months navigating the stresses while struggling to continue to provide services to the community.
What struck Grass Valley Police Detective Chris Roberds most forcefully in those initial days of the COVID-19 shutdown was the uncertainty, with members of the public looking to law enforcement for answers.
“It was weird, we were all in the same boat — (COVID-19) was a new thing and we didn’t know much about it,” he said. “Being an officer, people think you have the answers, that we had the scoop.”
From the beginning, Grass Valley ‘s patrol officers followed clearly defined mask protocols, and were looking to provide education rather than punitive enforcement, Roberds said.
“We remodeled our whole policing style, until we could figure it out,” he said. “We went to a more ‘drive around and be visible’ mode, going to calls but not being as pro-active on issues such as panhandling.”
As time went on, Roberds said, the department loosened its restrictions.
“We’ve been trying to get a handle on what is an absolutely necessary contact, and what could be handled by phone or taking a different approach,” he said.
One upside, from a patrol perspective? Less paperwork.
“Eighty percent of our forms went to digital,” Roberds said. “It has made a huge difference in time saving. This has streamlined a lot of stuff as far as productivity so that when we are on the street, we can be more effective.”
The mission for patrol officers remains the same as it has always been, he said: “We’re going to do the best we can to keep people safe.”
Taking COVID precautions just adds another layer to the things every officer has to worry about with every interaction. And mask-wearing, while vital for everyone’s safety, creates a surprising challenge in the everyday interactions with the public.
“You don’t realize how much of (communication) is physical until you take away someone’s face,” Roberds said, adding it can be hard to show empathy when you can’t see facial expressions.
“They can think you’re disinterested, because you’re asking those standard questions, you (can) turn into a robot pretty quick,” he said. “We recognize it’s an issue. It’s just another hurdle we have to deal with.”
But Roberds said that on the whole, the community has been understanding and supportive of its law enforcement.
“People are good about approaching us with kindness,” he said.
Those who work in the courtroom handle criminal activity at the other end of the process, but are equally committed to performing that essential work despite COVID challenges.
Taking COVID precautions has been especially important for the county’s public defenders.
“We don’t have the option to not go to court, or not go to the jail to visit the people we are appointed to represent,” said Deputy Public Defender Micah Pierce. “It’s challenging because … that in-person part of our job, it can’t be easily translated to going online.”
Pierce recently completed a criminal trial, one of less than a handful that have taken place since March.
“It’s been a small fraction,” of the number of trials in a typical year in Nevada County, he said. “We now have a significant backlog of trials stacking up.”
Pierce noted that safety protocols have made conducting trials extremely difficult, with juror pools given questionnaires instead of appearing in large numbers in person.
Witness testimony also faces new barriers.
“The ideal is that jurors see how a witness testifies, how they respond to questioning,” Pierce said. “Obviously, having a mask or other barrier to viewing the witness is self-evidently problematic to assessing a witness… Part of the function of the jury is to assess credibility and those barriers impact (that process).”
“Almost every aspect of my work has been affected,” said Robin Herrgesell, who has been a criminal court clerk since 2014. “It’s slowed the process down in general … We’re going to be recovering for a long time.”
Since March, only one clerk’s office has been open to the public, and being short-staffed has taken its toll, Herrgesell said. Suite 5, which was more focused on civil and family law, now serves as the front counter for all departments, she explained.
“We all cover where we can, when we can,” she said. “It’s stressful, just because there are a lot of things are going on – taking filings, answering phones, and we still have open counters. … There are stresses behind that, handling paperwork and being around the general public, all the concerns behind getting sick. None of us want to get sick, obviously.”
Safety is a huge concern, not just for prospective jurors but for court staff as well, Herrgesell said. And from her perspective, conducting hearings remotely has had a positive side.
“I (do) feel discomfort when there are a lot of people in the courtroom,” she said. “People are generally mindful of the protocols, but there are some who are not. It all boils down to, is someone with COVID going to come in and infect us all? It’s not an imaginary concern.”
Court clerks are observing social distancing and mask protocols, even in the closed offices, Herrgesell said.
“We try to remain positive,” she said. “We really lean on each other for support. It does take a certain personality to be able to cope with some of the things we see and hear every day. … I think one of the hardest parts is not being able to have physical contact with people, because on emotional days, sometimes a hug is (what) it takes — a hug or even a smile which can’t be seen through a masked face. The fear of even doing that, it’s sad we have to fear that.”
But while Herrgesell acknowledges the experience has been rough, she said the court staff as a whole has been amazing at rolling with the punches.
“It’s a whole new world for us,” she said. “We are learning, we are adapting and creating and trying to be inventive.”
That spirit of collaboration was echoed by Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Vingom, currently assigned to bailiff duty in court holding.
Deputies assigned to the courthouse have two primary duties, Vingom said: security for court staff and the public, and coordinating transport for inmates between the jail and the courthouse.
While security issues remain much the same, officers charged with transport now also coordinate remote appearances via Zoom, he said.
“It does add a layer of complexity,” Vingom said. “I think it’s gone about as well as could be anticipated. I think we’ve risen to the challenge. It just takes a lot of teamwork, and a lot of coordination.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.
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