|North Adams Board of Health Authorizes Police as Health Agents|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff|
04:09AM / Friday, May 29, 2020
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city's police officers were deputized Thursday as health agents on to assist the health inspector during the pandemic.
"It's just something to address our current situation to expand, I guess, the capabilities of the Board of Health since the Health Department is one person," Health Director Michael Moore told the board on Thursday. "Hope for the best prepare for the worst."
But he and Police Chief Jason Wood wanted to make it clear that it wasn't about "shaking people down for not wearing masks or anything."
Wood said officers were initially guarded about the idea but consulted with their union local, Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), and found it was not unusual.
"It's been a good thing in the communities because law enforcement tends to put out some some fires before things get out of control," the chief said.
This was bolstered by recommendations from John Sofis Scheft, an Arlington attorney who offers instruction, guides and training for police on legal procedures.
Scheft also wrote up a generic memorandum of appointment for boards to use.
Gov. Charlie Baker on May 6 issued an order requiring masks or face coverings when people cannot keep at least a 6-foot distance, largely for when people are inside buildings, transit vehicles or other close proximity. The order allows businesses to refuse entrance to those failing to abide by the rules and for communities to fine violators up to $300.
Warnings and fines must come from health agents, and it "will be unwieldy if police officers must notify and await the arrival of a BOH agent every time they want to notify, educate, warn, or ticket a violator," Scheft writes. In this case it makes sense, he writes, for boards of health to use their powers in an emergency to designate local police to be health agents.
"So with that being said, it looks like we're going for it," the chief said. "But I would certainly caution and say that I don't want to portray the perception that the law enforcement is like the strong arm tactic."
Wood said he wanted to approach the pandemic guidelines as more of an educational outreach than officers merely being an enforcement mechanism.
"If it becomes a criminal matter, well then, that's more in our wheelhouse and we can deal with it," he said.
The chief said this would be COVID-19 based as the state begins to loosen the emergency orders that have had Massachusetts in lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. He didn't want officers to be dealing with other health violations like "disgusting" houses.
"I wouldn't, I wouldn't do that you," joked Moore. Wood responded that he didn't think he would but "it makes me feel better to say it out loud."
But the chief cautioned that he saw the police role as supportive to the health director and that he would be looking to Moore for guidance before they took any actions.
"Legally, Mike, you can go places that we can't under normal circumstances, so I would be careful not to blur those lines and confuse people," he said.
Board Chairman John Meaney Jr. agreed that "close communication between the Department of Health and the police, I think that would be good."