Story by Stephen Prudhomme | Photos by Jami Brannen
During these unprecedented times, when a pandemic has changed life around the world, what was normal has been replaced by a new norm—one of social distancing when out in public and plenty of time indoors.
In Rincon, the change can perhaps be best encapsulated in a traffic anomaly along Highway 21and observed by interim police chief Jonathan Murrell, who has been on the job since October. Motorists don’t have to wait to make a turn from West 17th Street onto the thoroughfare normally teeming with cars and trucks.
As it turns out, police officers in Rincon, despite having to spend minimal time at that intersection to make a turn, are not lining up as much as in past months to take advantage of this break in traffic; Murrell did note, however, that traffic enforcement was returning to normal as the city prepared for the Memorial Day weekend and various restrictions were being lifted throughout the country.
Since mid-March, when federal and state restrictions were implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19, Murrell said they reduced traffic control to minimize contact his officers had with the public and only respond to more serious incidents. When they do respond on the roads, he added, they use hand sanitizer and, at their discretion, face masks.
“We wanted to reduce contact with the citizens unless it was absolutely necessary,” Murrell said. “We would take calls over the phone instead of responding in person.”
On traffic stops, the department continued its general policy of having people remain in their vehicle while officers checked out their license. Along with having the driver show his license rather than handing it over, officers used an electronic device known as a ticket writer. Where a signature would ordinarily go, the officer wrote COVID-19.
Traffic court was held May 14, the first time since it was postponed in March. Normally, anywhere from 60 to 150 people would appear, according to Thompson, but only 30 showed up for the latest session. He attributed the lower numbers to people following recommendations to pay tickets ahead of time.
Those who did show up had their temperature taken in the police department lobby before going through security and into the courtroom. If it was 99 degrees or higher, they had to schedule another court date. Inside the courtroom, social distancing was observed by people standing on prescribed marks before going to the solicitor and, in some cases, the judge.
Before the pandemic, Rincon police would accompany emergency vehicles on calls and, when the situation warranted, enter the home. Since March, however, while still going on the calls, officers remain outside the home unless it’s a dire situation such as cardiac arrest, according to Murrell. In such cases, they would wear masks when going inside.
Despite the pandemic, the department remains committed to serving and protecting the community and, if need be, arrest lawbreakers.
Patrol commander Lt. Daniel Thompson said arrests are made on a case-by-case basis. In the case of misdemeanors, they tried to minimize contact by releasing the individual and issuing a citation. With more serious crimes, such as domestic violence, Thompson said the person would be booked and questioned about their physical condition before being taken to jail; he added that jail personnel would be alerted on the impending arrival of the arrested party so they could take safety and preventative steps.
Measures to protect members of the police department extended to the station, located on West 17th Street. Thompson said the department lobby remained open, noting that the staff area in the rear is secure and separate from the lobby. Previously, members of other law agencies would go in and out of the rear area. The pandemic necessitated tighter controls on these outside law visitors.
“We monitor where they can go,” Thompson said.
Unusual or emergency situations can bring out the best or worst in people. Stories of heroism and charity are heartwarming and inspirational. Conversely, tales of people taking advantage of others and often resorting to crime during difficult times elicit feelings of anger and depression over a world gone wrong. Rincon, as it turns out, offers hope that all is not lost in the world. This is reflective of a city where fundraisers are frequently held for local residents facing various hardships and people genuinely care for one another, trying to improve a negative situation rather than making it worse.
“I haven’t noticed a notable increase in any type of crime,” Murrell said.
In that same vein, Murrell noted he didn’t see any large gatherings of people, a violation of the social distancing guidelines. If he had, Murrell said he would have contacted the Georgia State Patrol. “We’re not charged with the duty to enforce social distancing,” Murrell said.
What he is charged with is protecting the public and staff during unprecedented times. “This is completely new to me,” said Murrell, who began his law enforcement career in Statesboro in 2009. “I don’t want my officers to feel uncomfortable in responding to a call they feel is unsafe. I’m leaving it up to them as far as responding to calls. I’m fine with that.”