OLATHE, Kan. – To lawbreakers, it might be the one great benefit of the pandemic that police are putting fewer people in jail.
The goal is to limit the spread of the virus behind bars and among law enforcement – but don’t let it fool you into thinking you can break the law and never have to worry.
“We are all in the same boat,” said Calvin Hayden, the sheriff of Johnson County, Kansas. “We are not making an arrest until we absolutely have to.”
That change caused the number of inmates at the Johnson County Detention Center to drop 25%, from more than 800 to about 600. The sheriff said it’s part of an effort to keep officers safe and to hold down the jail population to limit the spread of the virus.
Police forces across the country are using the technique, and judges and prosecutors are encouraging it.
Hayden said they’re still enforcing laws, but they’re more likely to hand non-violent criminals a summons for a court date than arrest them.
Minor violations, like forgetting to use turn signal while driving, are more often ignored so officers can limit their face-to-face contact and stay healthy enough to go after serious offenders.
In Missouri, police in Blue Springs are also adapting their methods to fit the virus.
“We have to control our exposure to an officer,” Police Chief Bob Muenz said. “So maybe that means we cite someone with a summons where normally we would have arrested them before.”
Muenz said when it comes to arresting people, his officers are focusing on the worst of the worst.
But he warned people shouldn’t take that as an invitation to commit a crime.
“We need you to know that we are still out here, and that if you break the law, you will pay for it,” Muenz said.
It just might be a ticket, instead of a jail cell.
At the Belton Police Department, Lt. Dan Davis said the number of inmates at their 25-bed jail has dropped to single digits.
Kansas City Police said they haven’t made any changes since the virus struck, but courthouse records show the number of inmates is down almost 50% at one facility.
Police are also putting other measures in place to limit exposure. Stations are now rarely open to the public. In some cities, officers will only talk to you outside.
The goal is to keep officers healthy, so that when serious crime occurs, someone will be still be there to protect you.