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A New Experience for Area Law Enforcement in Our Area; With Orders and Some Curfews in Place, Officers Dealing with Issues they Never Considered

BY SARAH STEPHENS

OWNER/EDITOR ELMORE AUTAUGA NEWS

We reached out to Police Departments in Millbrook, Prattville and Wetumpka to see how the first night of the Governor’s Stay at Home order went overnight.

With the passage of curfews for some communities in our area and a Governor’s order for the entire state to stay home, law enforcement is navigating unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, waters. In Autauga County, Prattville is under a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for all ages. In Elmore County, Tallassee has also enacted a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. All of Montomery County is under a curfew for evening hours as well.

“We have told the officers to try and work with people, because everyone is nervous and concerned,” Prattville Police Chief Mark Thompson told the EAN this morning. “With this curfew, first time offenders are probably going to get a warning. But when we start having repeat offenders? Not so much. The Governor has ordered everyone who can stay home, to do so. All we are asking is for everyone to follow that order.”

Those who violate that order without good reason could face a $500 fine and/or up to 180 days in jail.

When it comes to following orders be it the curfew or for non-essential businesses to close, Thompson said some just refuse to listen. Already his officers have had to visit two businesses in Prattville that refused to close voluntarily, including a craft store and beauty salon.

“This not something we want to do. This is something we have to do to save lives,” Thompson said. “I had to do something that just about killed me. Yesterday, we had some local athletes just throwing a football around on a local field. We got out with them and learned they are just trying to stay in shape and keep their skills up. I told them I appreciate what they were trying to do. They were trying to be productive. They weren’t out trying to get into trouble. I support them 100 percent, but under the circumstances something as simple as throwing a football around could be transferring the disease.  Having to tell kids that are trying to be productive that they cannot throw a football was not fun.”

As for the new curfew passed by the Prattville City Council this week, it was initially put into place for those 17 and under. That changed Tuesday to include all ages because of growing concerns.

 “We started seeing things that weren’t normally happening at night, and starting to happen, after the curfew started in Montgomery. We had an attempted break-in of a store after hours, and that is not the norm. So, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. everybody is expected to follow the curfew, unless they fall under a few exceptions,” Thompson said.

Those exceptions are:

Essential employees on their way to or home from work. They need to have a letter from their employer explaining their duties.

Seeking Medical Attention.

Needing Supplies.   However, under that category, Thompson added explanation. “Most of the stores in Prattville are closed at those times except for 24-hour service stations. If you are out, you may be looked at and if you are stopped you need to have a legitimate reason as to why you are out, and where you are going. You may have an escort to where you are going. But, if legitimate, you will have no issues with us. For those who are not compliant we will be issuing citations, or if absolutely unavoidable, arresting them.”

However, in reality and confirmed with various local officials, jails are not extending open arms for new prisoners right now, unless it is a serious offense. Last month the District Attorney’s Office was scrambling after a surprise order from Judge Ben Fuller for prisoners incarcerated with a $5,000 bond or less to be released. DA staff worked diligently to make sure that prisoners with violent offenses were not included in those releases at the time and in the future during our current situation.

All prisoners are tested for fever before being accepted into area jails, and if there is even a slight fever they may be booked but quickly released. Court dates will be set for the future.

Jail officials are doing everything possible to not have a COVID-19 situation among prisoners.

It is a scary time, many officials have told us. The criminal element will use this to their full advantage, and there is no way around it, unfortunately.

According to Thompson, retail theft dropped dramatically at the onset of the curfew and orders from the Governor.

But now, his officers are seeing an increase in domestic violence calls and mental health issues.

WETUMPKA POLICE REPORT CALM FIRST NIGHT OF ORDER

“It was quiet and calm and hardly anyone out,” Wetumpka Assistant Police Chief Ed Reeves said. “Fortunately, we had no serious issues at all.”

He said he hopes that will hold true through the duration of the Governor’s Order.

He echoed other officials’ thoughts, that this is a new world for law enforcement. “I have never seen anything like this in my life, or my career. So, we are all having to deal with new things.”

MILLBROOK POLICE DEPARTMENT

There were three arrests in Millbrook overnight. One was for driving while under the influence and speeding at 100 miles per hour on Hwy. 14. A second was for possession of a stolen gun, providing false information to law enforcement, and violation for license to carry a pistol. He was arrested immediately for a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear in court. The other charges will be added.

The third arrest came about during a traffic stop when it was learned the driver had a warrant out of Wetumpka.

There was also a single-vehicle accident near Millbrook Point Apartments, and Millbrook Fire personnel were called for a suspected alcohol poisoning unrelated incident. When officers arrived on that scene, they reported multiple individuals gathered, and alcohol a factor in their behavior.

“We knew when the Governor issued her revised orders on Friday that this weekend would be different and a challenge. That being said, it really doesn’t change law enforcement’s mission,” Millbrook Police Chief P.K. Johnson said. “Our primary job is to respond to calls for service, patrol our areas, deter crime and reassure our citizens. This weekend we didn’t really see an increase in the amount of calls, but we are being hyper vigilant during this time. If we see people out and about, we would approach them as usual if it looks suspicious. In this circumstance the Governor has issued a stay in place order. Our officers have been instructed to not be over the top, and not just arbitrarily stop everyone. But there will be very little tolerance for people found to be in violation of the Governor’s orders, especially when they are out committing any type of crime.”

Domestic Violence, Mental Health

Officials we have talked to say there is a huge concern that there will be an increase in complaints for domestic violence, gatherings of more than 10 people and issues with mental health.

With families spending a lot more time together, and some choosing to use alcohol and/or drugs to pass the time, they fear domestic issues are going to increase rapidly.

As for the mental health issues, there was a great difficulty in finding help for those with problems before the pandemic. Now it is almost an impossibility unless a violent crime is committed, they say. In years past, the general theory was that a person showing mental deficiencies could be held if they were a danger to themselves or others. However, with larger facilities being closed over the years, and a move made for community facilities not happening, there are few spots available. Those spots are reserved, officials told us, for the most serious of cases. It is not unheard of that even those attempting suicide are released back to family members in some cases if no help is immediately available. Newer laws do not allow jails to hold mental patients, unless there is an actual criminal charge.

Officials have told us that in their individual communities, they have people they are familiar with, that deal with mental/emotional issues. For the most part, they are more a danger to themselves than others, and officers know them on a first-name basis and have learned how to deal with them as best they can. Again, there are very few spots available to care for them.

However, with the added angst and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials admitted they are seeing normally rational citizens with short fuses. People who have never before had a problem with law enforcement, are now engaging in disputes with neighbors, or disagreements in over-crowded grocery stores and parking lots. For a good example, Millbrook officers were called to an issue at a local store this past week. A female became agitated because her car was blocked in by a police unit. The officer told her he would move the vehicle shortly. However, she instead backed up hitting the police officer’s unit causing minor damage. Charges could be pending in that incident.

“Very simply, officers were responding to a call, in this incident it was a disturbance in the store. Our priority at that time was to control the situation and make the scene safe for all parties involved. This citizen failed to comply with officers’ instructions to be patient until we gained control of the situation at the store. Instead, she tried to leave and as a result she struck an officer’s unit. That is both totally unnecessary and unacceptable. This situation could have been avoided had she just complied with the officer’s instruction. So, yes, we are considering criminal charges at this time. We know who she is. She was not the priority at that time, but she could have been arrested right there.”

Can Counties Be Closed Off?

In another issue, the EAN has talked to officials pondering if there is some law that would allow counties to close their borders, and simply cater to area residents. Closing borders has already been done recently in some states in the country, but nowhere that we know of for particular counties.

So far we have not found any legal way to do that specifically by county. The term “Act of Congress” could be used here, as that is what it could take.

Many officials have told us they expect a lot of new legislation to come that could perhaps help in a future, similar crisis. But there is nothing that can be done on that angle, short of Martial Law, to help in this one. Martial Law is absolutely NOT what area officials want.

It is indeed a new, scary world for all of us.  Area law enforcement and leaders are trying to feel their way through a very dark time. However, there really is a simple solution. It is called common sense, which we have stated lately is not something that grows in everyone’s garden.

We at the EAN want to remain hopeful. Please, unless you HAVE to get out until these orders are lifted, please stay home when possible. These are anxious times, and new territory for most everyone alive in this country. We will get through this smoothly, but only if area residents do everything in their power to keep the peace before law enforcement has to become involved.