Are area law enforcement members wearing masks? Leaders indicate ‘for the most part’

Members of the Ontario Police Department pause for a photo in their parking lot on the morning of July 21 as they were on their way to the Department of Human Services. Pictured, from left, are Police Chief Steven Romero, office manager/information technology supervisor Sheri Smith, and Lt. Jason Cooper.

MALHEUR COUNTY — On Thursday afternoon, the newspaper received a citizen report of police officers allegedly standing in close proximity to each other, as well as a citizen, without wearing masks while they appeared to be conducting an investigation. As such, the newspaper reached out to local law enforcement agencies to see how they are responding to Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order that requires masks be worn in public settings — which now includes outside spaces — when a safe physical distance of at least 6 feet cannot be maintained between a person and other individuals not from the same household. The order went into effect on Wednesday.

In an email from Capt. Timothy R. Fox, public information officer for the Oregon State Police said that OSP troopers will follow Brown’s executive order.

“If possible, they will also wear masks during traffic stops and during investigations,” he said.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said that his office, which also is contracted out as Vale city police, started actively taking precautions last week. A policy was implemented for deputies to “wear a mask anytime that we are dealing with the public.”

In Ontario, Chief Steven Romero said he and his officers at Ontario Police Department “for the most part” are “able to follow best practices for protecting against COVID-19.”

However, there may be times when they have to remove face coverings. Romero said this can include “moments where making split second decisions may impede someone’s ability to don and doff a mask safely (foot pursuits, coming upon a crime in progress, an unexpected hazard that requires immediate action).” Other such instances can include while communicating critical information clearly on radios.

“I’m not certain that it could be achieved with all types of masks,” he said. “Currently OPD is experiencing a radio failure which has caused us to have to operate and monitor two different frequencies and our portable radios are average at best under current best-case scenario.”

While no internal policy has been developed separately at OPD regarding COVID-19, Romero says he and his officers are “following state and federal best practices that have been developed by our Human Health services and CDC.”

As far as how Brown’s mandate to wear face coverings impacts first responders, the chief indicated more information is needed.

“Unfortunately, it does not have any specific details that outline the protocols for public safety personnel that are out in the field responding to dynamic conditions and activities,” Romero said. “There are so many variables that impact police, fire and EMT personnel when responding to calls, that I think they would fall under the ‘Not feasible’ clause in the latest executive order.”

He said that he wishes citizens could understand what it takes for others to “manage to ensure everyone’s safety on all fronts.”

“OPD is committed to following best practices but it would be inaccurate to state that it could be done at ALL TIMES during the course of field activities,” Romero concluded.

Safety is a top priority for the Nyssa Police Department, as well.

Police officers have tried to be as proactive as they could, according to Chief Raymond Rau, who noted they were all given advance notice of the mandate.

“As with most policy changes and directives this was discussed by not only the supervisors but with the patrol staff, as well, their input was probably the most valuable as they are the most exposed out in the public,” wrote Rau in an email on Thursday.” We tried to come up with a standard that was reasonable for our duties, would protect the staff, the members of our community and also adhered to the mandate as best as we could.”

The chief said he and his team discussed ‘what-if’ scenarios, and researched information on the practical use of different types of masks and how the virus was spread from local sources, including the newspaper and Malheur County Health Department.

“The directive management sent out was simple: Just like with our body cameras, you will put your mask on when feasible during any contact with the public,” wrote Rau. “We know that we need to set the example and we accept that responsibility.”

As Romero mentioned, Rau said there are times when dynamics of the job will require an officer to lower their mask for the purpose of clear and effective communication. In those cases, when the situation is over, the mask will go back on, he said.

Because there are many times officers may have to enter a residence or come into close proximity to people who may have underlying medical conditions, Nyssa Police officers will do the best they can.

“It’s about serving our community and if that means we need to wear a mask it doesn’t matter if we like or agree with the mandate or not,” Rau said. “We wear it, too, because we took an oath to safeguard lives.”

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