Police chief explains why he sent letter to Gov. Evers
Police chief Jason Bauer says it wasn’t his intention to create a firestorm or undermine public health warnings when he wrote a letter to Gov. Tony Evers last week asking for Safer at Home restrictions to be lifted.
However, after posting the letter on his personal Facebook page on April 15, his one-page message went viral, creating headlines across the state and drawing both praise and criticism online.
Bauer said he was just expressing his opinion as a local law enforcement agent who sees the societal impact of efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 — a potentially deadly virus that has killed thousands worldwide but seems to have a more limited infection rate in rural areas like this one.
The closing of restaurants and other businesses, along with orders for residents to stay at home, have created signifi cant social side effects, he said.
“I have seen first-hand how residents in our community have been negatively impacted physically, mentally and financially,” he wrote to Gov. Evers. “We have seen an increase in abuse and domestic violence. Extending the order will make some problems worse.” During an interview at his office on Tuesday, Bauer was asked what made him decide to write the letter. He said his thought process started to change when he had to deal with a local church holding services in its parking lot (with parishioners staying in their vehicles).
Bauer said the governor’s office eventually said the services were permitted, but he was originally told that they were not allowed under the COVID-19 restrictions. This left Bauer feeling conflicted.
“Who am I to prevent someone from expressing their faith?” he said. “So, I felt guilty, and knowing that the virus is not in the Colby-Abbotsford area, then I really felt guilty.”
Health officials would likely take issue with Bauer’s contention that the virus has not reached the Colby-Abby area, since testing is still limited. In a Monday press release, the Clark County Health Department identified the northwestern corner of the county as the area with the most known cases (over 10), and said the last 10 people to test positive were in close contact with each other.
“The safest way to help stop the spread of COVID-19 is to treat it as though it is everywhere and to follow the Safer at Home order,” the release sates.
Bauer said he understands where health officials are coming from, but he is experiencing the pandemic from a much different perspective.
“The health department sees it differently than I do, but they’re not dealing with the things our department is dealing with,” he said, citing an increase in domestic violence calls and mental health detentions for suicidal residents.
Bauer said he did have a conversation with Clark County’s public health officer, Brittany Mews, who has been leading the charge to contain the spread of COVID-19 in local communities and raising awareness about how easily it can be spread.
Ultimately, the two officials are agreeing to disagree on what it is the greater threat — the virus itself or the measures used to keep it in check.
“It’s not going to prevent us from working together, by any means,” he said. “We’re both adults, and opinions vary.”
Bauer said one of his frustrations has been the lack of clear answers from the state government about how to enforce certain restrictions and when they may be lifted.
“Sometimes, down in Madison, I don’t think they’re thinking logically,” he said.
Bauer believes most local citizens were OK with abiding by the restrictions when they expected them to be lifted — or at least scaled back — by the original April 24 date set by the governor. However, after the governor announced that he was extending Safer at Home by another month, Bauer said more people got upset.
The police chief said his department has not gotten any indications that business owners are planning acts of civil disobedience, and his officers have not had to break up any large gatherings.
“Our communities have been complying, but we haven’t really been put in any bad situations yet,” he said.
Still, Bauer worries about elderly citizens who are all alone, with no means of direct social interaction and physical activity. There are also unsupervised kids at home while their parents are at work, and Bauer said he hates having to shoo them away from playgrounds and basketball courts. School resource offi cer Pat Leichtnam has played a big role in addressing that issue, Bauer said. “He runs around all day long, checking on kids,” he said. “He’s probably busier now than when the kids are in school.”
While he has doubts about the governor’s “Badger Bounce Back” plan — which requires a steady decrease in the number of cases before restrictions are lifted — he also says officials need to be smart about reopening the economy.
“I’m not advocating for open houses at our nursing homes,” he said. “You shouldn’t go into a room and greet people like you’re from Europe, and smooch them on the cheek.”
Nevertheless, Bauer said Wisconsin’s decision-makers need to start moving toward a practical longterm plan.
“I think we can get the economy going again and fight the war on COVID at the same time,” he said. “We’re going to be forced to do that.”
Sheriff weighs in on issue
Clark County Sheriff Scott Haines released a statement over the weekend, staking out a slightly different position than the one Bauer took on the question of restricting freedoms people normally take for granted. “These rights are restricted at the recommendation of medical health professionals, far more qualified to make those decisions than I, and I believe for the greater good of all,” Haines wrote. “My concern is that if we move too fast, we will move backwards, more people will test positive for COVID-19.”
Still, Haines said he struggles with the concept of restricting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
“It is not a document that gives us rights, it preserves them. We are committed and dedicated to protecting your constitutional guarantees,” he said. “This order has not suspended the United States Constitution or the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin.”
Haines said his department will continue to take a “common-sense” approach to enforcing the statewide restrictions, and only take action “on blatant violations of this order that puts the public at ‘great risk.’” Meanwhile, the Clark County Health Department reported the county’s first COVID-related death on Sunday, and continued to drive home the message that residents need to stay at home as much as possible to stop the spread of the virus (see article above).
“We are working tremendously hard to protect you. By staying home and following Governor Evers’ order, you are helping to save lives,” Mews wrote. “Thank you for your continued cooperation and patience during this difficult time. We will get through this together.”
Looking back at all the media attention his letter generated, Bauer does not regret expressing his opinion, though he told a Gannett newspaper that he may have changed the part where he compared COVID-19 to the Devil.
“What I was getting at is that it’s invisible, and I’m not going to be afraid of invisible things,” he said. “But, I’m not going to go and do anything irrational, like trying to catch it intentionally.”
Like many Wisconsinites, Bauer said he is anxious to get back to life as it was before the pandemic hit.
“I hate that they call it the ‘new norm,’” he said. “It’s a temporary norm. I’m not going to accept that it’s the new norm.”