As COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. reached a record high of 61,000 on Tuesday, Isla Vista residents have expressed concern about deputies who opt to forego masks and neglect to social distance while on duty.
Officers from the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, a division of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, regularly patrol the streets of Isla Vista, enforcing open container laws and issuing citations to violators of the county-wide noise ordinance and minors in possession of alcohol. Per the California Department of Public Health, Californians must wear face coverings in public spaces and outdoor areas where physical distancing is not possible — this practice has not been consistent, however, among the very individuals tasked with enforcing the law.
According to Isla Vista resident Kaela Bowens, officers routinely patrol without adequate personal protective equipment. “I saw a whole group of police walk by a party [on September 12], many of whom were not wearing masks,” Bowens said. “I went back for badge numbers, and the female officers put their masks on and gave me them quickly … [one officer] would not spell his name for me and was reluctant to share his badge number. He then told me he did not need to wear a mask because he was in open air. I cannot describe to you the level of arrogance in this encounter.”
Bowens’s experience is not unique. Many residents of Isla Vista have either encountered or directly interacted with maskless deputies. One individual, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that when his house received a noise violation in October, a group of five police officers entered his backyard — two of whom were not wearing masks. “One of the maskless officers got really close to me when writing the citation,” he said. “It was intimidating and made me feel uncomfortable.”
However, according to Lieutenant Erik Raney of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, the use of masks is at the discretion of each officer — there is no formal departmental policy. “Deputies should try to wear masks when possible, but there are a number of exceptions for when they’re not required to do so. We have some deputies throughout the department in Isla Vista who have medical exemptions from wearing masks, and when we’re interacting with people, they need to see our facial expressions and read our lips and hear us clearly,” Raney said. “And if you think about the nature of law enforcement work, we can’t be at a six-foot distance every time we have an encounter.”
While medical exemptions are granted to those unable to safely wear masks for medical reasons, Bowens believes it is irresponsible for officers in this category to continue to interact with members of the public. “One officer told me he had a medical exemption, but if he is medically exempt, most likely because he has breathing problems or is high-risk, why is he out in the field not only endangering himself, but others?”
COVID-19 cases in Santa Barbara County are still too high to allow the region to move into the less-restrictive orange tier, which were largely attributed to increases in Isla Vista in recent weeks. Declining to wear a mask while enforcing the law — especially in an area where many students flout public health guidelines and COVID-19 cases are still on the rise — arguably puts the larger community at risk.
Although the Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) has received numerous complaints about this issue, it is unable to intervene, as it is the responsibility of law enforcement to alleviate the concerns of residents and promote the safety of the community. “I have personally seen residents so upset about this that they are yelling at law enforcement and almost getting into altercations with them,” said IVCSD Board President Spencer Brandt. “It doesn’t feel like the job of residents to police the police in this way.
“People in public-facing roles should be wearing their masks,” added Brandt. “Especially now, given this tension that exists between residents and law enforcement officers, it’s incredibly important for officers to be leaders and model COVID-safe behavior.”
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