When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Monday that all “non-essential” workers should stay home, and that all “non-essential” businesses are now required to lock their doors, rumors immediately began to fly as to what that means for not only the individuals effected, but also the law enforcement agencies charged with enforcement.
Community leaders and lead law enforcement officers all stated Wednesday that no local law enforcement agencies have been targeting any individuals or businesses, in regards to the governor’s orders.
“We’re on routine patrol doing what we do every day,” Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton said. “Our deputies, we’re not ‘checking papers’ we’re not ‘checking businesses’ we’re doing day-to-day patrol and still responding to the same types of calls that we do every day.”
“Those (orders) are issued from the state, and aren’t issued by the city. The Hobbs Police Department does not go business to business, or randomly pull people over to verify compliance with those orders from the state,” HPD Chief John Ortolano said. “We encourage people to be in compliance with those orders, but we’re not going around checking on those as a part of our daily operations.”
As part of the department’s wanting to set the record straight, late Tuesday evening the HPD issued a statement on social media stating, “There are rumors going around that the Police Dept. is stopping cars to verify that they have a legal right to be out after the Governor put out the new pandemic restrictions. The police department is NOT randomly stopping people to verify compliance with the Governor’s order. We are conducting our regular police business as usual.”
“I’m not aware of any directives the city manager gave to the chief of police, or the chief of police gave to his officers, that we are out enforcing those,” Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said. “Now, we are still enforcing local laws and doing traffic stops. There has been no discussion, and no direction from the commission to the city manager or anywhere else that we’ll be out doing that.”
Hobbs Acting City Manager Manny Gomez agreed.
“During these times of crisis, unless told otherwise and given a directive by the governor or anyone above that, they do not enforce administrative orders, such as the public orders received from the governor’s office in the last few weeks,” Gomez said. “What they may do, if you’re at a park or gathering, and not following the mass gathering guidelines, to keep you safe, they may say, ‘We need to honor this’ and the importance of social distancing.”
In addition, law enforcement officials said there currently is no letter, or pass, that anyone has to have to go about their daily lives. The Sheriff also said if anything appears on social media about COVID-19 that does not originate with the Center for Disease Control, or law enforcement, then it is probably rumor.
“(There is no letter) that I’m aware of — not that I’ve been briefed on. I attend two meetings a day at emergency management about COVID-19, and I haven’t heard that,” Helton said.
There also are no curfews in place for the area.
“There are no curfews from this order,” Gomez said. “There are curfews within the City of Hobbs that we will continue to enforce, but nothing to do with COVID-19.”
And, if local law enforcement does get a report about COVID-19 violations, they will pass it on to the New Mexico State Police (NMSP).
“If we do get a call, we will refer that to the state police, as of right now,” Helton said.
“This directive came from the governor’s office, it’s to be enforced by the state police, not the local police,” Cobb said.
The NMSP, the agency responsible for handling complaints of violations of the health orders, did issue a statement regarding enforcement of the governor’s orders.
“We believe the great majority of businesses will continue to voluntarily comply in the interest of public safety. However, in the event businesses are not compliant, officers will educate the non-compliant establishment about the requirements of the order and allow them a reasonable opportunity to adapt,” the NMSP read. “We anticipate many businesses will voluntarily comply in the interest of protecting public health, state law addressing the public health order grants the State Police the authority to take action when necessary. Businesses who remain non-compliant may face civil fines or criminal charges. The public health order also states that mass gatherings of more than five individuals are prohibited at this time.”
“The New Mexico State police isn’t stopping cars and asking people where they are going (outside of questioning during a routine traffic stop). There are no travel restrictions,” NMSP District 3 Commander, Capt. Lance Bateman said. “We’re not doing that.”
Bateman stressed NMSP is not specifically targeting, or out patrolling for, non-compliance.
“We’re not going out as an agency, driving around and looking for businesses that are open,” he said.
The NMSP is taking more of a reactive approach by responding to complaints they receive from the state’s COVDI-19 hotline, he said.
“If they are non-essential, we’re reaching out to them and asking for their assistance,” Bateman said. “A lot of (our calls) are educational. We’ve received a lot of calls from businesses themselves asking, ‘am I essential or not?’ and we’re giving them guidance. We appreciate the people who are reaching out and wanting to help their community. If they are non-essential, we’ll talk to them and ask them to please close for the time being, for safety.”
Repeat offenders violating the governors orders, however, can face penalties, including fines and/or arrest, should they continue to violate orders.
“We don’t want to reach that point, of course,” Bateman said. “But, we will continue to respond to all calls, including COVID-19 business complaints.”
NMSP Chief Tim Johnson also said that the NMSP understands many New Mexicans are being adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis on many levels, and that law enforcement officers, and their families, also share many of the same worries.
“We realize this is a very stressful and uncertain time, but as a community and state we will get through this,” said Johnson. “The core mission of the New Mexico State Police is to ensure the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of New Mexico, and we are committed to doing just that by ensuring New Mexicans adhere to this public health emergency order.”
What law enforcement is doing, is encouraging people to continue to act as a community and help those in need while also adhering to health orders.
“I would urge people to be neighborly and if they know of people who are in need of special assistance, or are elderly, make sure they check on them,” Ortolano said. “You never know if your neighbor or relative needs anything. It doesn’t hurt to ask if they need help.”