Though the coronavirus pandemic locked down the majority of the world, in Hettinger, N.D., it was a different kind of story back in March 2020.
“For the Hettinger County Sheriff's Office, I would say we were concerned about it. Just like the whole nation, we didn't know what to expect, what it really was, what was really going to be happening. We did shut down the courthouse to only let people come in by appointment. And of course we had to ask them, you know the three questions that have been asked a million times: if they'd been sick (or) coughing, if they had a fever in the last 24 or 48 hours, things like that,” Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah D. Warner said. “But as the time went on… the biggest thing was that everybody thought it could be spread by surfaces; and so, that worried people. So we cleaned the office more regularly and tried to stay separated.”
However, like a few other southwest North Dakota law enforcement agencies, the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office actively chose not to enforce Gov. Doug Burgum’s mask mandates and mandates on businesses with citations.
Warner noted that officers of the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office did wear masks for patrol when conducting routine traffic stops or entering an individual’s house at the initial stages of the pandemic. But as more information came to light with the coronavirus, Warner did not implement a mask mandate inside the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office building.
Though Warner did not enforce the mask mandate in Hettinger County, it was still a priority for her to focus on education.
“I think it was a personal thing that people could have. It was up to the people or up to the business. When the governor put out the mask mandate, we were going to follow what he asked law enforcement to do which was educate,” Warner said. “... But we mainly let it be up to the people. There were percussions and especially up here when we opened the courthouse up. We have glass barriers between our counters. We have ways of cleaning, when they leave. I think the biggest thing is people's fears just got to them about the (unknown)... I think some of their fears actually led to them getting sick — they were so afraid of it that they ended up getting it.”
Like many areas across North Dakota, the mask mandate and the coronavirus itself divided populations.
“I think there was a twofold. You had your people that were very scared of contracting it and then you had your people that were skeptical that this was from the government and this was not real — it's just a really bad flu. And as we saw, it affected people differently. Yes, some really got it and then of course, unfortunately, some did pass away from it. Others didn't get it or got it mildly and we're out one or two days, but it was a serious thing because you don't know one way or the other,” Warner noted.
Calls for service in 2020 for Hettinger were about the same as 2019, with a relatively high number of domestic cases, Warner said, explaining that several calls were directed at husbands and wives arguing. But one main issue that remains for Hettinger County as well as several other southwest North Dakota counties is the high amount of drugs filtrating the area, with fentanyl being one of the major ones.
With the coronavirus pandemic overwhelming the North Dakota State Laboratory with COVID testing, drug testing was delayed for the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office, including one case which took eight months to come back with results.
“So we send out any drugs that we find or anything that needs to be analyzed and have an official report from an expert… so that they can verify that it is (for example) marijuana Even though we're trained and we have the experience of what marijuana is, we still have to send it to the lab to be tested and come back with a result that (verifies) yes, it is what you think it is,” Warner said.
The delays are a result of turnover with employees and budget cuts over the past six years, Warner said.
“But it's concerning too. We have a lab here and not to be able to get your results back (is frustrating). It used to only take two to three weeks to get the results back,” she said.
Being the sheriff for 11 years now, Warner hopes to continue working on retention with her five deputies who cover a 134-square mile radius.
“My biggest one is just keeping my team together. It seems like these smaller counties are sometimes stepping stones for law enforcement. They get into a smaller county, we send them to training in Bismarck and they're here maybe one (to) two years and then they can go to a bigger department. It's hard for us to compete with the bigger departments and salary and time off,” Warner remarked.
Moving forward in 2021, the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office will purchase new radios with the Statewide Interoperability Network Program — which is a North Dakota radio upgrade project moving from VHF (Very High Frequency) to 800 MHz (megahertz) — focuses on updating law enforcement agencies’ radio and portable radio systems. The sheriff’s office also received six Automated External Defibrillators, which was a grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust to provide lifesaving equipment for North Dakota's Law Enforcement First Responders.