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 The playground at Booth Park in downtown Birmingham sits quiet because of the state’s emergency order that prohibits the use of public recreation facilities.

The playground at Booth Park in downtown Birmingham sits quiet because of the state’s emergency order that prohibits the use of public recreation facilities.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

As quarantine restrictions ease, so do police with enforcement

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 26, 2020


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — We’ve all heard the unnerving anecdotes: officers breaking up basketball games at the park, pulling over bikers out for a ride, ticketing shaggy patrons going for a rogue haircut.

But is policing in the time of COVID-19 really as draconian as we’ve heard on social media?

Locally, not so much.

Leaders with the Birmingham and Bloomfield Township police department and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said enforcing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s statewide stay-at-home order has been less about citations and more about education.

Most of the time, according to Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, violations of the order aren’t the result of rebellion, but rather a misunderstanding of the latest version. The governor’s order changed several times in the past few months, and Bouchard said directives can 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),” he 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
The same goes for Bloomfield Township, said Lt. Paul Schwab. About a quarter of the calls in the township — 104 to be exact, as of late May — were to report landscaping crews or tree-trimming companies working in the area. Under the governor’s order, landscaping and outdoor work had been prohibited, but that ban has since been lifted.

“We’ve had calls for businesses open that weren’t essential, calls on outdoor activities, four calls on public gatherings … reporting folks on golf courses,” Schwab said. “There were some students playing lacrosse on the field over at Brother Rice (High School). Unless it’s a blatant violation, our officers just ask them to pack up their tools and be on their way.”

Bouchard said his department took a similar approach.

“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 write reports to be submitted to the health department for potential action.


Domestic distress
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.

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

“Our call volume is up year over year 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
Early on in the crisis, law enforcement was able to ease into the “new normal” with lower numbers of the usual roadway violations, like speeding and operating under the influence. Fewer people venturing out into the world meant a drop in auto accidents, too.

That reprieve was short lived, Grewe said.

“We’re definitely starting to get back toward normal. It’s not as slow as it was before,” he said. “There are more people on the roads now, and with some businesses allowed to open back up, there’s definitely an uptick in activity.”

When you combine COVID-19 cabin fever with warmer, sunny days not seen in Michigan for months, it’s hard to ask residents to stay in isolation.

“We had two weekends where the weather was really nice and Woodward was very busy,” Grewe said. “Not just with cars, but people sitting along Woodward looking for the classics.”

Luckily, classic car fanatics have been receptive to police when asked to spectate 6-feet apart from others.

“It seems as soon as the sun is out, we just get a higher volume of that, and now it’s (exacerbated) because of ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe.’ People have been cooped up too long, and they’re looking for an opportunity to get out,” he said.

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,” Grewe 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.