Police chiefs: Use common sense, set division aside, on mask order

By Brandi Makuski

Local police chiefs say they spent most of Friday morning fielding phone calls from individuals seeking information about the enforceability of Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate issued on Thursday.

Stevens Point Interim Chief Tom Zenner, and Plover Chief Dan Ault, both said it’s tough to enforce any gubernatorial order that comes with as many exemptions as Thursday’s order did. Both say they are instructing their officers to simply do their jobs and keep the peace.

Zenner said his office has been “pouring over the language” throughout the seven pages of Evers’ mask order and public health emergency declaration, both of which were released on July 30, with the county health department.

“We’ll move forward as we have in the past and stress voluntary compliance,” Zenner said on July 31. “As law enforcement it’s our job to keep the peace.”

Zenner said if someone reports a business within the city not enforcing the mask order, officers will work with the business and the Portage Co. Health Department to “reach a resolution.”

“But to be able to address individuals who are not wearing a mask, and to receive those calls within our communications center…we don’t have the resources to handle that call volume, or the ability to identify the exemptions within the order that would allow officers to confidently enforce it,” Zenner said.

Ault had similar concerns.

“I think my message is that we’re not going to be mask-patrolling because we have to assume if someone isn’t wearing a mask, they have a legitimate reason for not wearing a mask because there are exemptions, and medical reasons are one; it’s not appropriate for us to ask what your medical condition is,” Ault said. “What we will be doing is preserving the peace if disputes would erupt, and businesses certainly have the right to refuse you if you’re not wearing a mask.”

Officers will be wearing masks as per the order but both chiefs said their departments aren’t engaging in the politics of the issue.

“I think the biggest issue it’s causing is this political division,” Ault said. “And I don’t think it’s healthy for law enforcement to get involved in politics. I’m not issuing a statement saying we’re not enforcing things, or that we’re taking a political side. I think that’s not professional law enforcement. The governor is our governor; he’s issued an order, and the courts will deem the constitutionality of that order.”

Ault said his officers will use a strong dose of “common sense,” but won’t take any unnecessary risks.

“If wearing a mask can help one person, that’s good enough for us, but we’re not going to force anybody to wear a mask,” he said. “We’re going to be leaders in the community. If wearing a mask doesn’t do anything, there’s really no harm in it. The emotions are high on both sides, but it’s time for everyone to set this division aside.”

Zenner said to his mind, the community has reached a crossroads in terms of moving forward.

“People are passionate on both sides; this isn’t the first time neighbors are disagreeing with one another,” he said. “But how we move forward with this, I don’t think there’s any disagreement that this is how we handle it—it’s a pandemic. As a community, we do need to find common ground. Whether we can have a difference of opinion on this or not, I don’t know; it’s a health emergency.”

Ault said police officers wear latex gloves when handling drugs, ear and eye protection on the shooting range, and protective vests on duty. He sees the mask as a natural extension of the same safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But we’re not getting into the political fray,” he said. “I’m a police chief, not a sheriff. I’m not in this position because I was elected; I was appointed.”

In Sheriff Mike Lukas’ July 31 statement to the media, he said his office’s understanding of the Executive Order is that “the goal is compliance and education and is not meant to be punitive.”

Lukas, who was not available for follow-up questions following the release of his statement, said it’s the job of deputies, as with any law enforcement officer, to ensure public safety. But he also pointed out the “numerous exemptions” in Evers’ order, which makes it difficult for any officer to enforce it.

“It is also not the job of county residents to police individuals who are not wearing masks, as there are numerous exemptions and it can place people into uncomfortable or possibly confrontational situations,” Lukas wrote.

But Lukas said the sheriff’s office will not respond to calls of an individual or a group of people who are not wearing face-coverings. He’s asking the public to not call 911 to report those instances.

“However, the Portage County Sheriff’s Office will continue to respond to reports or complaints from a business owner, manager, or other premises owner who has already requested that an individual leave a premise for failing to comply with the face-covering mandate as it relates to that specific premises,” he wrote. “We anticipate that these circumstances will be rare, but enforcement is necessary under these circumstances because they are situations where a disturbance may be likely. In those situations, our focus is not on the face-covering order itself, but rather the fact that the individual is not wanted in a particular place, that the individual has been asked to leave and has not complied with the request of the person in control of that premises.”

Above all, all three department heads stressed residents should be civil toward one another.

“I strongly encourage people to follow the CDC guidelines,” Lukas said before releasing his statement on Friday. “But I would also strongly encourage civility.”

“This is a hot potato item,” Zenner said. “There’s a lot of passion on both sides of the issue. We need to all work together as a community to get beyond that.”