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Despite COVID-19 crime wave predictions, cops report mostly quiet in Southern Az
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Despite COVID-19 crime wave predictions, cops report mostly quiet in Southern Az

No draconian enforcement, no increase in offenses... no Buffett?

  • Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, speaking during a Senate hearing in 2015.
    Jessica Boehm/Cronkite NewsCochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, speaking during a Senate hearing in 2015.
  • Howard Buffett, speaking during a Senate hearing in 2015.
    Jessica Boehm/Cronkite News Howard Buffett, speaking during a Senate hearing in 2015.

Despite recent protests across the nation and state over "stay at home" orders issued by governors, law enforcement officials in Southern Arizona say they have found little need to enforce COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions.

In fact, not a single area law enforcement agency approached by TucsonSentinel.com has issued a citation, or made any arrest, pursuant to executive orders restricting personal activities and commerce during the coronavirus outbreak.

Far from what you might expect hearing the right-wing rhetoric decrying the "iron heel" of government, the Pima County Sheriff's Department, for example, said "people are policing themselves."

And, though some in law enforcement have promoted fear through prognostications of pandemic-prompted crime waves along the border, area law enforcement officials told the Sentinel that crime rates have not changed much, and that citizens, by and large, are being fairly responsible.

Meanwhile, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels — who has long relied on dire depictions of border crime for political and budgetary gain — appears to be coming up short in efforts to supply deputies with personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

This, despite his agency's history of receiving tens of millions of dollars in patronage from the son of one of the world's wealthiest individuals.

Fallout from executive orders

On March 30, in response to the growing outbreak, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order requiring Arizonans to limit time away from their homes to engaging in essential employment or volunteer work, or to utilizing the services of essential businesses.

Per the order, essential activities included (but were not limited to): grocery shopping, obtaining medical care, use of the post office, providing for the care of others, employment in essential businesses, exercise, and other routine tasks — so long as they were conducted in accordance to guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Previously in March, Ducey had issued lists of essential businesses, as well as an order compelling the closure of certain non-essential businesses in counties where confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infections had been reported.

The March 30 "stay at home" order was initially set to expire May 1. However, on April 29, Ducey extended the order to May 15.

All iterations of these executive orders have exempted constitutionally protected activities, such as religious worship and protest, though the orders have stipulated that such activities be carried out in accordance with public health guidance.

In the days immediately following the extension of the order, two Arizona law enforcement leaders, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Mohave County Sheriff Doug Schuster, announced they would not enforce the governor's "stay at home" order, claiming it was unconstitutional.

The public announcements of the two Republican sheriffs came amid growing unrest nationwide, aimed at similar "stay at home" orders. In mid-April, protesters (some heavily armed) in several states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, and Texas, flocked to statehouses to demonstrate.

Several of these protests took place after President Donald Trump tweeted that protesters should "liberate" states lead by Democratic governors.

In Arizona, the growing tension has caused a rift between hardline pro-Trump, or "constitutional conservative" (as Pinal's Lamb describes himself) elements of the state's Republican constituency, and Ducey —who is also a Republican.

Protests organized and promoted by far-right and vehemently pro-Trump groups such as AZ Patriots and College Republicans United took place at the Arizona Capitol on April 20 and May 3.

Ducey seems to be feeling the pressure, having since modified the April 29 extension to allow for the opening of non-essential businesses for curbside service on May 4, the re-opening of such non-essential businesses as barbershops and salons on May 8, and the resumption of dine-in service at restaurants and similar establishments on May 11. This weekend, his state authorities announced that bars could also reopen, so long as they sold any sort of food — including nothing more than a bag of chips.

'Policing themselves'

Furor over enforcement of Ducey's emergency orders may have more to do with politics than reality on the ground. In Southern Arizona, law enforcement seems to have had little need for heavy-handed enforcement.

According to Pima County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Deputy Marissa Hernandez, Sheriff Mark Napier (a Republican) had issued guidance to deputies at the outset of the "stay at home order," stating that those who failed to comply with the order could be cited or arrested for a class 1 misdemeanor offense (for violation of powers invoked by the governor during a state of emergency, pursuant to Arizona Revised Statues 26-303 and 26-317, ) if they did not comply.

However, as stated in the PCSD guidance: "Arrests for violations of the Executive Order shall only be made as a last resort after all other efforts to resolve the situation have failed [...] Absolutely no arrests shall be made for a violation of this Executive Order without the specific permission of a Lieutenant or above."

PCSD's chief tool in enforcement has been education regarding public health guidance and Ducey's order, Hernandez said.

She said the agency has received complaints regarding suspected violations — usually involving gatherings perceived to be too large, or of non-essential businesses suspected to be operating in violation of the order.

In none of these incidents, said Hernandez, were businesses found to be operating in violation of the order. And, said Hernandez, when deputies have responded to calls regarding gatherings, they have advised citizens of public health guidance/orders and requested voluntary compliance.

According to Hernandez, all such requests on the part of PCSD deputies have been honored. As such, no arrests have been made, or citations issued, for violations of the executive orders.

"People are policing themselves," said Hernandez.

Moving southeast of Pima County into Santa Cruz County (under the purview of Sheriff Tony Estrada, a Democrat), law enforcement seems to be taking a similarly laid-back approach.

According to Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office spokesman Commander Santiago Gonzales, the agency has issued no citations, nor made any arrests for violations of Ducey's orders.

Gonzales said Santa Cruz deputies have responded to complaints of gatherings that were believed not to be in compliance. He said deputies have taken an "educational" approach, advising citizens of public health guidance and the governor's orders, and that citizens have voluntarily complied.

In neighboring Cochise County, Officer Jamilette Barrios, a Douglas Police Department spokeswoman, said DPD has been taking the exact same approach: advising citizens of public safety recommendations and asking for voluntary compliance.

Barrios said DPD has had to make no arrests, nor issue any citations, for violations of the governor's orders.

In Sierra Vista, Cochise County's largest municipality, Sierra Vista Police Department's Officer Scott Borgstadt echoed the same sentiments: the department had received few calls or complaints. When officers did respond to complaints, they took a more "educational" approach and sought voluntary compliance, he said.

Should an SVPD officer encounter a citizen who refused to comply with the governor's orders after being asked, said Borgstadt, the officer would write up a report and refer it to the Cochise County Attorney's Office, and let them decide if they wished to prosecute.

No such referrals have been necessary, said Borgstadt.

And, according to Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre, no such referrals have been made to CCAO by any law enforcement agency operating in the county.

The Cochise County Sheriff's Office, in response to a public records request submitted by the Sentinel, stated it possessed no records of citations issued by its deputies related to the governor's order.

Fears of crime wave

While law enforcement accounts paint a picture of relative quiet along the border, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels (a Republican) seems to be the exception.

On April 21, Dannels was quoted in the conservative Washington Examiner (owned by billionaire right-wing philanthropist Phil Anschutz), predicting a crime wave stemming from the pandemic.

"Good people become desperate. [...] They don't have a job and their need and survival instinct kicks in — run into a store and steal food, run in and rob a place," Dannels told the Examiner. "That is scary, you bet it. Along with the anxiety increase, fear becomes the result, aggravation. All that tips the scale for law-abiding citizens."

Dannels' prediction seems to be at sharp odds with realities on the ground in neighboring jurisdictions.

In Pima County, PCSD's Hernandez reported that calls relating to verbal domestic violence have increased only slightly during the time of the pandemic, while the number of calls relating to physical domestic violence have stayed about the same as they were prior to the outbreak.

Further, Hernandez reported PCSD has actually seen a decrease in property crime, likely due to restrictions on movement.

According to Hernandez, PCSD has noted no increase in border-related crime.

The pandemic crime wave has yet to wash over Santa Cruz County's shores, either. According to SCCSO's Gonzales, not much is going on in what he describes as a generally safe community.

"We're business as usual. Outside of that, we had this executive order that came down our way, and we're trying to do our part to keep the community safe," said Gonzales. "Out here in the county, I don't see any difference, either way. It's just the same activity that was going on before COVID that's going on now. I can't say there's been any change on our part."

Santa Cruz County has not seen an increase in any type of calls,  including domestic violence, Gonzales said.

And, according to Cochise County Attorney McIntyre, Dannels' pandemic crime wave has not materialized in Cochise County.

"I don't know that we've seen the beginnings of that yet; I hope not. And, who knows, this is a fairly resilient county, and we've seen a ton of people helping out a ton of people, and maybe we don't get there — that's what I'm crossing my fingers for right now," said McIntyre. "We're all pretty independent here, and so it feels like we've got the right balance. People are letting people be, but at the same time, not going overboard with things."

Though far short of a COVID-19 crime wave, McIntyre said Cochise County has seen a slight increase in daytime DUIs and daytime calls to law enforcement relating to domestic violence.

The county has also seen a small increase in apprehensions of drugs intended for sale originating from Mexico, said McIntyre. Notably, said the prosecutor, on May 3, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers apprehended a vehicle just north of Douglas carrying as many as 7,000 fentanyl pills.

But the increase in such apprehensions has not amounted to a wave of drugs washing over the southern border.

"It's probably a difference between five total [apprehensions] last year this time, as opposed to 10 total this year," said McIntyre.

Otherwise, said McIntyre, the pandemic has been fairly uneventful.

CCSO spokeswoman Carol Capas stated that the agency has received an increased number of calls relating to domestic violence during the course of the pandemic, but was not able to provide any statistics about those calls.

Capas said she did not know if the Cochise sheriff's office had received an increased number of calls pertaining to any other class of crime during the period of the pandemic, and was unable to provide any further information.

Dannels, who has a documented history of making hyperbolic claims about border-related crime in Cochise County, did not respond to requests for comment from TucsonSentinel.com.

CCSO's wealthy benefactor AWOL as agency struggles for PPE?

Another thing setting CCSO aside from its fellow Southern Arizona law enforcement agencies is a professed lack of personal protective equipment for its deputies.

While the Pima County Sheriff's Department, Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, Sierra Vista Police Department, and Douglas Police Department all told the Sentinel that they — thanks in large part to generous donations from both individuals and businesses in their communities — have adequate PPE for the protection of their officers, CCSO seems to be falling short.

Capas said that obtaining PPE has been an "ongoing process," but that deputies have been provided with some masks and gloves, for use on a discretionary basis.

"But, again, we don't have enough personal protective equipment to be wearing to each and every call," Capas told TucsonSentinel.com. "They use, ah, you know, good safety practices when responding to calls — um, but if they were to... We had over 40,000 calls for service last year, so that would be that would be, you know, that much PPE that we would be required to have, and we don't."

CCSO is also different from its fellow area law enforcement agencies in that it (and related entities, such as the Sheriff's Assist Team) has received tens of millions of dollars from a private benefactor, Howard Graham Buffett (primarily through his nonprofit, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation), since 2012.

Howard Buffett, who owns significant tracts of land along the border in the county, is the son of one of the world's wealthiest people, billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

The majority of Howard Buffett's charitable giving to CCSO has been related to his interest in border security. And the relationship between CCSO and Buffett has been such that, in 2016, following approximately $22 million in gifts, CCSO awarded Buffett the rank of deputy commander.

But, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Capas declined to comment on any aspect of Buffett's current relationship with the sheriff's office.

When asked whether Buffett was involved in helping CCSO obtain PPE for its deputies, Capas responded: "I don't know the answer to that. I would have to check and let you know."

Capas did not respond to further inquiries about the situation.

According to Cochise County Board of Supervisors spokeswoman Amanda Ballie, the Cochise County Office of Emergency Services maintains a supply of equipment to "help regional agencies respond to emergency situations and major incidents." As part of that, CCOES has received a "limited supply of PPE from the state and through local donations."

Neither CCOES or any other department of Cochise County (barring the sheriff's office), has received any funding from Buffett or his charities for PPE or pandemic response, Ballie said.

Ballie stated she did not believe CCSO has received any funding from Buffett in 2020, but stated any questions relating to CCSO would need to be referred to Capas.

Neither Buffett or the Howard G. Buffett Foundation responded to requests for comment regarding Buffett's current relationship with CCSO, or what efforts, if any, Buffett has made to assist Cochise County during the course of the pandemic. Capas did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

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