How Oakland County policing has changed during the ‘new normal’

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 23, 2020

File photo by Donna Agusti

It was the first week of April, not long after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a statewide emergency order for residents to stay home at all times to stop the spread of COVID-19. That’s with the exception of life-sustaining excursions, like shopping for essential supplies.

Peter Douglas had adhered to the directive, and on one of the first nice days of the season, he decided to treat his cabin fever with a bike ride around his Royal Oak neighborhood. 

“I needed to get out, and I figured I would take the bike out. I was riding along and got pulled over,” Douglas explained in an online chat. “(The) cop asked me why I was out, and I just told him I needed to get out after being locked in the house alone for days. He told me that I wasn’t supposed to be out unless I was getting groceries or essential items, and I needed to go home. He let me off with a warning and that was it.”

Lt. Al Carter, of the Royal Oak Police Department, said he’s unfamiliar with the incident and couldn’t speak to the interaction.

Questions abound

Douglas doesn’t hold any ill-will toward the officer or the encounter, and chalks up the experience to widespread confusion over what is and what isn’t acceptable activities during the emergency order. 

“Chances are that they didn’t fully understand all the rules of the lockdown, and they see a biker rolling with Van Halen blasting on the radio and thought I was up to no good,” he added.

For the most part, according to Bloomfield Township Police Lt. Paul Schwab, confusion has been to blame for most of the emergency order violations seen by law enforcement.

“We’ve had quite a few calls from residents reporting public health (order) violations. Since we started tracking them on April 11, we’ve had 55 complaints. Of those, 55 have been unfounded,” Schwab explained.

The same goes for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the governor’s order has not only changed several times in the past month, it can also be tough to interpret, even for deputies.

“So many people have turned off the news because they’re just overwhelmed with it, and they may not have heard the latest iteration of (the order),” Bouchard explained. “To the extent that they can tune in and find out the latest, or visit the governor’s website or the attorney general’s website and read the frequently asked questions posted there, we hope they can. But we can’t expect everyone to be able to study the fine print each time.”


Legal loopholes

Most of the calls in Bloomfield Township — 16 to be exact, as of mid-April — have been to report landscaping crews or tree-trimming companies working in the area. Under the governor’s order, landscaping and outdoor work has been prohibited during the quarantine period, but Schwab said officers have tried to be fair with violators.

“We’ve had seven calls for businesses open that weren’t essential, 10 calls on outdoor activities, four calls on public gatherings, 10 calls on outdoor activities, five have been reporting folks on golf courses,” Schwab said of reports in Bloomfield Township. “There were some students playing lacrosse on the field over at Brother Rice (High School). And there were 13 calls to report construction workers putting on decks and things like that. Unless it’s a blatant violation, our officers just ask them to pack up their tools and be on their way. We haven’t issued any violations as of yet.”

For construction work, for instance, jobs can be completed to a point where it’s protected from the elements and prior work won’t be ruined, and outdoor areas — not including playgrounds — can be utilized if folks keep 6 feet apart.

“You can still play tennis; you just can’t play doubles,” Schwab added.

Bouchard said his department is taking a similar approach to their enforcement of the emergency order. 

“The vast majority of times, if there is a violation, the people don’t know that they’re in violation of the order. The other times people call and there’s no violation. Like, they see people together on their front lawn. Well, you don’t have to social distance from your own family,” Bouchard said.  “I’ve given very clear orders to our deputies that they’re not going to be seen as a fearful presence in the community. I don’t want people to worry every time they see a car drive up.”

Many agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, have avoided writing on-the-spot citations. In the event someone is knowingly violating the emergency order, Bouchard said his deputies are writing reports to be submitted to the health department for potential action.


Domestic distress

As for other calls, Birmingham Police Cmdr. Scott Grewe said the department’s run volume is lower than normal for this time of year. Perhaps surprisingly, that includes domestic disturbance calls, of which both departments have recorded zero since quarantine began.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the 400,000-plus residents under the Sheriff’s Office patrol. Bouchard said family disputes, domestic violence, suicides and suicide attempts have all jumped up during the course of the lockdown order. 

“Our call volume is up year over year (ago) right now for those types of things, and when you’re responding to more of those kinds of calls, specifically domestic violence and suicide attempts and all those things that come from the tension and anxiety that are certainly a component of this disease, that’s all the more reason you really don’t want to be wasting your manpower walking 18-holes of a golf course looking for an individual (violator),” Bouchard said. “We want to be a partner in keeping the community safe and healthy, and residents have been really supportive of us, and we’re grateful for that.”


A break from traffic troubles and retail fraud

Some good news to come of all this is that across the board, fewer people venturing out into the world means fewer auto accidents and traffic infractions, too. 

“With business and schools being closed, there are far fewer vehicles on the road, (and) fewer traffic-related incidents,” Grewe said, noting one exception when a 24-year-old Redford man was ticketed for drag racing on Woodward Avenue April 19.

Besides that, he said, Birmingham officers are using the extra down time to patrol neighborhoods. 

“We’re also making routine checks on all our businesses during this time to ensure they’re safe and secure,” he added. 

One thing law enforcement is keeping a close eye on, according to Schwab, is reports of fraud, particularly with senior residents.

“There are people taking advantage of this whole pandemic, claiming to sell different products in order to steal personal information and commit identity fraud,” he said.

Call Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at (586) 498-1095.