As is well-known as of this time, the COVID-19 pandemic is real. Within just a few short weeks, our nation went from hosting Super Bowl parties and other large gatherings to sheltering in place under various state level Safer at Home Orders. While this crisis is global in nature, affecting millions worldwide, some within our community have been impacted on a more personal level. For those who have experienced the loss of a family member or other loved ones, on behalf of the men and women who serve and protect our community, I extend our sincere condolences, as your loss is deeper than the statistics reported on the daily evening news.
In uniting as a nation to confront the most challenging public health crisis of our time, we must also acknowledge and weigh the threat of economic recession (or worse, depression), which represents a competing threat to our national stability and vitality. Businesses large and small are experiencing a catastrophic loss of revenue due to the current crisis. In some cases, smaller businesses may be forced to close outright if relief does not soon arrive.
As we develop strategies to respond to this crisis locally and beyond, the good news is, the way forward does not require a binary choice of wealth over health, or party over principle. To emerge from this crisis whole and united, our national, state and local response must be strategic, measured and non-partisan, executed with surgical precision and unity of purpose.
Before a single death was reported in Racine County, local law enforcement leaders assembled to discuss the emerging pandemic and to formulate a strategic response to this threat. An Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was immediately mobilized in order to centralize command and control operations for our regional response. The knowledge and skills local leaders acquired while participating in disaster preparedness exercises at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland over the years is now paying dividends.
Working collaboratively through the EOC, police, fire/EMS, healthcare administrators and elected officials from the City of Racine and Racine County are taking the necessary steps to keep area residents safe as we respond to this national crisis. From the acquisition (and proportional distribution) of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) resources, to the relocation of the homeless to safer short-term housing, to the procurement of emergency housing for first responders who may require isolation or quarantine, the response to this crisis has been strategic in nature and an example of what can be accomplished through regional collaboration.
With specific regard to the enforcement of the recently extended Safer at Home Order issued by Governor Evers, the Racine Police Department and law enforcement agencies throughout the state have fielded a number of inquiries regarding potential violations. In one case, a concerned citizen contacted me to express concern for the safety of his mother, who works at a local manufacturer that has remained open under the Safer at Home Order. Through working with the assigned City of Racine Health Department sanitarian, it was determined that the business in question had taken mitigating steps to ensure the safety of all employees who elected to continue to report to work.
The example above illustrates a balanced approach to the challenge of maintaining the need to earn a paycheck, keeping the broader economy moving, while observing the greater law enforcement role of safeguarding life itself. Where this balance can be achieved, local businesses will continue to be granted the latitude to adapt, evolve and operate, providing this may be accomplished safely and in good faith. As breakthroughs in science are achieved and other interventions are identified, the transition to a new normal may be further advanced.
In contrast to the example cited above, food processing plants and other businesses across the nation are now being forced to close after infected employees have exposed others to this deadly disease. More alarming, food recalls may follow in order to ensure that our nation’s food supply chain has not been contaminated. This example highlights the reality that, the public safety decisions we make today (or those we fail to make), will have a profound impact on the outcomes we will face in the weeks to come. As such, we must choose wisely in the days and weeks ahead.
To those within our community and beyond who have lost loved ones, have friends or family members who are battling this dreaded disease, and to those who have expressed concern regarding the manner in which the Safer at Home Order will be interpreted locally, please be assured that, where there exists any threat to public safety within the City of Racine, the response from the Racine Police Department will be data-driven, science and fact-based and non-partisan in nature, with the sole purpose of safeguarding life.
For historical context, airport searches became significantly more intrusive as personal privacy standards were adjusted and normalized following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Similar to our experience following the events of 9/11, the preservation of life will influence decision-making during the current crisis. As we navigate through this crisis, the law enforcement community will remain true to our oath to safeguard life and property, doing so while observing the broader freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
To date, local law enforcement officers have displayed great courage and dedication to duty in working long hours to keep our community safe during this crisis. With the continued support of elected officials, the business community and area residents, police officers, fire and EMS officials and our critical frontline healthcare workers will continue serve with honor, keeping us all safe in the process.
In the interest of public safety, I humbly solicit your support in promoting order maintenance in the weeks ahead. Together, we will flatten the curve, reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and thrive together as a community moving forward. Onward together!
Art Howell is chief of police for the City of Racine.
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