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How the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office is responding to COVID-19
FCSO coronavirus
Members of Forsyth County Sheriff's Office have had to make changes due to the COVID-19 outbreak, including members of the community relations team, who have joined with nonprofits to deliver meals to those in need. - photo by Courtesy of the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office

All sorts of workplaces have had to make adjustments and find ways to deal with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said his office is no exception.

Freeman said in recent weeks, the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office has taken on new roles, made efforts to help those in need in the community and have tried to be examples of social distancing and taking precautions against the disease.

"This is when we become a lot more than just public safety officers,” Freeman told Forsyth County News. “I hope we can answer the bell to whatever needs the community has. Between us and the other first responders and local government, that we can be here as much as we need to fulfill any need our community needs.”

Freeman said the outbreak has impacted how officers react to the community, the types of crimes that have been committed and operations of the Forsyth County Jail.

'Nothing has been interrupted'

Freeman said like most employers, the office was allowing those who could to work from home, especially those in administrative or financial roles, but that clearly isn’t the case for officers.

“I think what's really important, what people need to understand, is we're still out there 24/7," Freeman said. "The streets are manned, the jail is staffed well, and we're still responding to 911 calls. While we're doing some minor reports over the phone, if you dial 911, a deputy is going to be there and be there quickly.

“So nothing has been interrupted for our service response. We’re still investigating crimes, we're still putting bad guys away and we're still serving the community.”

The office had closed community-focused programs such as women's self-defense courses and Seniors and Lawmen Together (SALT) to slow the spread of the disease, but officers were still taking on their normal roles and even have more available manpower under the unique situation than they normally do.

“Unfortunately, we're the type of business that has to be here 24/7, our community's needs require us to be there 24/7,” Freeman said. “Now, we're in great shape for that. With the schools being closed, we've got 44-plus school resource officers who are up to patrol duties and things like that, so the reality is we have more deputies on the streets today than we did before the pandemic hit.”

In addition to their normal roles, Freeman said officers were also helping meet the basic needs of those most in danger of catching the disease.

“Our community policing staff is not doing their normal jobs right now, so I challenged them to go find our most vulnerable, our most needy who needed prescriptions or groceries or whatever else they might need,” he said.

Freeman said officers were also practicing social distancing by having roll calls outside with officers standing six feet apart, taking police reports from a safe distance and educating any groups they run into about why distancing is important.

Officers have also received personal protective equipment and training and carry sanitizer and disinfectant.

“Obviously, we're in law enforcement. If you have to chase a criminal down and tackle him, you can't always stay six feet away,” Freeman said.

'Some pretty significant steps'

In addition to the changes for the members of the sheriff’s office on patrol, those working at the Forsyth County Jail have also had to make adjustments, including the jail's medical staff screening everyone who enters the facility.

“We have taken some pretty significant steps in the jail to do our best to avoid any outbreak or infection in the jail,” Freeman said. “So, we have a very rigorous screening process in the jail in which every inmate is screened by our medical staff before they ever come in the facility. They aren't even allowed in the doors until they are screened [by the jail's medical staff], their temperatures are taken, then we put them into... kind of a step-down housing unit where we can monitor them for 14 days.”

Religious and addiction-focused groups that meet at the jail have temporarily been suspended to avoid bringing in any more outsiders than necessary. Freeman said he has worked with vendors to provide more phone calls and e-post cards on tablets used by inmates to help them stay in contact with their families.

Even FCSO employees aren’t being let in unless they have spoken with medical providers and have been screened.

“If I walk into the jail, I will get screened. I'll have my temperature taken,” Freeman said. “It's one of those things that we're doing because this is a very close-contact environment, as you can imagine, in those housing pods.”

Asked if Forsyth was considering releasing any non-violent inmates due to the pandemic, Freeman said those decisions would need to be made by a judge but they had considered one scenario.

“The only thing we've talked about doing is if someone comes in for a minor crime and is symptomatic – in other words, has a fever, is showing signs of things – we have talked to the judges about that person potentially, if it is a non-violent criminal, getting a potential [own-recognizance] bond, and that's only for minor, misdemeanor offenses," he said. 

How crime is changing

Freeman said the changes at the jail did not mean “a free day for criminals” and the office is still getting a normal number of calls each day, though there has been a change in which crimes are being reported.

“We've definitely seen a decrease in entering autos and residential burglaries for our regular statistical trends,” Freeman said. “I think that has to do with a couple of factors. The first is a lot more people are home right now and staying home, and thank God they are, so we've seen a significant decrease in those.”

Freeman said that domestic situations and neighbor disputes were not rising but were “not down” over the past few weeks.

“There's a lot of pressure on folks and it sometimes shows itself in not the nicest of ways,” he said.

Officers have also been responding to typical calls, such as car chases and DUIs.

"Criminals are sometimes not the smartest individuals in our society, and if they're going continue to commit crimes in our community, then we're going to continue to put them in jail," Freeman said. 

'The Forsyth County way'

Through the pandemic, Freeman said the department is still making arrests and he was seeing the best and worst of the community.

“The 'best of' is we're seeing a lot of folks who are taking care of helping out their elderly neighbors, checking on each other, doing those sort of things, so you see a lot of cool things out there at the same time,” he said.

Freeman said since the outbreak began, the community has gone above and beyond to let officers know that they are appreciated and “haven't missed a beat.”

“It is the Forsyth County way. It is the way that we always expect and come to expect in this county," he said. "We've had an overwhelming showing of support in this community, the things they have brought to us, the business owners who run restaurants who have offered to feed the deputies for free or at a discount, the same as we see with our healthcare workers and other first responders. They're on the front lines, and I think our community appreciates so much what they do. I know I do.”

In turn, Freeman said he is encouraging those in his office and in the community who can to help support local businesses, such as ordering takeout from locally-owned restaurants, an industry that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

“In the times that we're in right now, if there's any way to reach out and support our fellow county citizens and business-owners, do that and be generous,”  Freeman said. “I leave much more generous tips than I did before this pandemic began, so if the opportunity is there, I hope we do what we always do so well in Forsyth County, and that's to take care of each other, and if we do those things and continue to keep our heads and our prayers going, I know we're going to come out of the other side of this thing better than we even were when we started.”