PA law enforcement stays on duty as incidents decline

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PENNSYLVANIA — One of the few constants in society during the past several weeks has been the law enforcement officers who are continuing to work through the COVID-19 crisis. While they remain on the job during the pandemic, the nature of their jobs has shifted.

On March 26, Wayne County District Attorney A.G. Howell signed a mutual aid agreement which included the police departments of Honesdale, Hawley and Waymart boroughs and Lehigh Township. Whereas municipal police usually only have enforcement powers within their borough or township, the agreement allows any department to provide “law enforcement aid” to another department outside of its regular jurisdiction.

“It is important for our community to know the police are prepared, ready and available for protection and service, especially during anxious times like we are currently experiencing,” Howell said. “We want to thank the Pennsylvania State Police for their continued assistance to our municipalities. It is always uplifting to see law enforcement come together in a strong showing of support, and it highlights the caliber of men and women who serve our communities every day.”

During the pandemic, the PA State Police is continuing to provide its regular coverage for the majority of Wayne’s municipalities that don’t have their own departments, said trooper Bob Urban of Troop R, which covers Lackawanna, Wayne, Pike and Susquehanna counties. Officers from Troop R have also long been helping Honesdale’s understaffed police department cover the midnight shifts. 

Urban said that in response to the pandemic, state police will avoid going to people’s homes unless a crisis has occurred. While police are receiving more calls than before Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order, the numbers of most crimes and traffic incidents are down.

Urban said that last year between March 23 and April 6, state police served more than 20,000 citations and issued more than 10,000 warnings. This year during that same timeframe, police only issued 2,875 citations and 3,254 warnings. According to previously published data, total arrests in PA are down 76 percent, property crimes are down 91 percent, crashes are down 75 percent and DUIs are down 71 percent.

Urban also said that state police respond to calls about non-life-sustaining businesses that may be continuing to operate despite Wolf’s order for them to close. Urban said that Troop R does not receive many calls about offending businesses, however, and at press time, no citations have been issued statewide. Wolf has also stated in press conferences that state police will inform PA residents about stay-at-home order guidelines, but that there is not a specific penalty for violating it.

In Wayne County, government buildings have been closed to the public except for essential business. Sheriff’s deputies have been stationed at the entrances of the buildings to enforce the regulation. The deputies likely have time to take on this new role, due to the pandemic temporarily erasing the ability for them to carry out some other standard duties.

“One of our daily functions—going out and serving civil writs—is pretty much ceased right now,” Wayne County Sheriff Mark Steelman said. “We’re not knocking on people’s doors serving credit card complaints and civil complaints.”

He also said that they are not transferring individuals in the local criminal justice system back and forth like they normally would. “The court is doing pretty much everything via video conferencing,” and the state correctional institution in Waymart has also stopped accepting new inmates through April 25, he said. Despite the changes, Steelman said that he’s keeping the same number of deputies on duty.

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