To combat the spread of COVID-19 in Bryan-College Station, local authorities are taking measures to protect themselves, as well as keeping the virus from entering the Brazos County Jail.
“We’re using more discretion when it comes to arrests,” said Bryan Police Department spokesperson Officer Kelley McKethan. “Obviously if it’s a serious offense, that person will go to jail as normal. But to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, we’re not seeking to arrest on minor offenses. But, after all this is over, those warrants will still be issued later.”
She noted that officers can also opt, at their discretion, to issue citations on Class C misdemeanors, or to respond only to traffic offenses that appear especially dangerous. Officers on patrol are given sanitization materials, and officers have the option of wearing masks provided by the department.
“We are trying to keep our officers as healthy as possible,” McKethan said. “We’ve taken measures to have the department cleaned regularly.”
College Station Police Department spokesman Officer Tristen Lopez said officers are still responding to emergencies and in-progress incidents. College Station patrol officers are not required to ask for supervisor approval to conduct a traffic stop, but the department is operating under a modified response policy with guidelines for social distancing. Ultimately, officers still have discretion to make contact if they feel it necessary, Lopez said.
He noted that call volume has decreased lately. Lopez said it was possible with fewer college students in town and more residents abiding by social distancing guidelines, less activity is taking place overall.
According to Lopez, even with fewer arrests taking place, suspects will still be held accountable with warrants to be prosecuted at a future date.
Brazos County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Garon said the sheriff’s office is not promoting any change in deputies’ proactivity with traffic stops.
“Any time they have someone in the back of their patrol vehicle, the deputy [is to] spray the seats down with a solution that’s supposed to kill the virus,” he said.
While those who violate Brazos County’s shelter-in-place order could receive a fine up to $1,000, local authorities say they have not yet cited anyone but have received reports of noncompliance.
“The majority of calls we are getting about shelter-in-place [violations] are related mostly to businesses considered nonessential remaining open,” McKethan said “With those calls, we make contact with the business and talk to the owner in charge, and we coordinate with the city to see if the business is nonessential and needs to close. … The biggest thing here is voluntary compliance. This is a tight-knit community, and if we want to keep our community safe, we have to work together.”
McKethan said Bryan police have received seven or eight calls in recent days from concerned citizens reporting noncompliance with the shelter-in-place order. College Station police reported receiving 10 to 15 calls on Wednesday reporting suspected violators, particularly at businesses, parks and apartment complex pools, said Lopez.
“We are making a lot of educational efforts, and we have reached out to a lot of businesses by phone,” he said.
Garon said the sheriff’s office has received few calls about those believed to be violating the order but did recently respond to reports of solicitors walking door-to-door in south Brazos County, attempting to sell cleaning supplies.
“This is kind of common,” he said. “Solicitors hit cities till they get run out, then go to the county. They usually aren’t from here; usually [they are] from Houston or out of state.”
Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said Thursday jail’s population stood at 520 inmates — approximately 100 inmates less than the average population size at any given time. The county has taken its own measures to limit intake in the jail. Kirk said jail staff are under standing orders from the justice of the peace that anyone arrested on a nonviolent misdemeanor offense be booked and released on a bond of $2,000 or less. He noted that exceptions can be made if it is determined the defendant poses a suspected threat to public safety.
Every new inmate at the jail is pre-screened for signs of coronavirus infection and then housed separately from inmates who have been in the population before the state of disaster declaration. At this time, inmates are still allowed to bunk in dormitories as usual.
Jail staff members are screened each day when they clock in, and group briefings are no longer held in-person prior to shift changes. Staff members are provided with gloves, masks and disinfecting materials, and they have been given instruction on when to use these items, Kirk said. Visitation also has been limited to video calls on site.
“Like everybody else, we’re very concerned about the introduction of the virus in our jail,” Kirk said.
He said that as of Thursday, no inmates had tested positive for coronavirus, nor had anyone exhibited all of the disease’s symptoms to a degree that would alarm staff. The Sheriff’s Office also has an action plan ready and in place should any inmate test positive for coronavirus.
“We do have some inmates that have been isolated out of an abundance of caution, whether they were showing any symptoms, or whether they had been exposed to someone that was ill,” Kirk said. “We do have the capability to isolate inmates, and [we] have medical tanks with negative room pressure where we can isolate and provide medical treatment.”