In Framingham, police chief says meting out penalties for COVID-19 violations is job of Health Dept. October 10, 2020
Jeanette Hinkle Metrowest Daily News
According to a log requested by the Daily News that shows information about police response to complaints about gatherings, police dispersed 21 get-togethers between Aug. 23 and Oct. 4. Framingham acting Police Chief Ron Brandolini says officers will respond to complaints about parties flouting coronavirus rules, but in most cases will take notes rather than break up gatherings.

FRAMINGHAM - Acting Police Chief Ron Brandolini says police will respond to complaints from residents about parties flouting rules set by Gov. Charlie Baker and the Framingham Board of Health to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but in most cases, officers are there to take notes, not break up gatherings.

"We're taking names as best we can - how many people have masks on, how many don't, the estimated number of people there, the host. We want to make sure we have the right address, but after that, we're leaving," Brandolini told the Police Advisory Committee on Thursday night. "We're not getting into any problems. We're not going be wrestling around with anybody. We're not going to be dragging anyone out of their own house, out of their own yard."

"We're asking them, please, to comply with the governor's, the mayor's and the Health Department's order and then we're leaving," he added.

Brandolini told the Daily News on Friday that if the party is one that police would have broken up before the coronavirus, they'll break it up now. But usually, police involvement ends with a request for compliance and a short report to the Health Department.

According to a log requested by the Daily News that shows information about police response to complaints about gatherings, police dispersed 21 get-togethers between Aug. 23 and Oct. 4.

The Health Department uses that log, which listed 196 complaints, to determine which gatherings warrant a $500 fine.

But police descriptions of the gatherings vary in the amount of detail provided.

Here is a sample of police comments about gatherings that resulted in a dispersal:

Aug. 31: "Group removed."

Sept. 2: "4 removed."

Sept. 6: No description provided.

Sept. 17: "RP (Reporting Party) states a large group of teenagers are hanging out 'rolling on the grass' and wants them removed."

Sept. 18: "8 persons removed from rear, no masks."

Sept. 19: "Around area of 32 Cavanaugh Rd. large party outside not social distancing... 2 different groups of 15-20 people from 30 and 34. (Name of host). It was a memorial service."

Sept. 20: "6 cars, people skateboarding in the parking lot. Management would like the group of people removed... Very cooperative, advised and leaving."

Sept. 27: "Large party out in the street."

Brandolini told the Daily News that he has repeatedly attempted to get officers to include more detail in their logs of responses to gatherings.

"I've put out many emails to the officers and I've had conversations with the shift commanders to let them know, if I'm scratching my head on some of these, the Health Department certainly is," he said.

"We have a lot more personnel than the Health Department," he added. "The Police Department has to do our part, so we will gather the information as much as we can, as accurately as we can, and we'll get it to the Health Department."

The Health Department has repeatedly said gatherings are leading to new COVID-19 infections in the city, which has spent more than a month as a high-risk community for coronavirus spread.

Often, infections have torn through families after a person attends a get-together, Framingham Health Director Sam Wong told the Daily News on Friday.

The Health Department recently upped the ante on fining those hosting illegal gatherings, eliminating written warnings in favor of a $500 fine on first offense.

So far, the Health Department has issued seven $500 fines to hosts of illegal gatherings. Before the Health Department switched to first-offense fines, it had issued a total of 53 warning letters, Wong said.

"We continue to see cases coming out of gatherings, and the warning letters, even with the media coverage, didn't seem to be having the effect that we wanted to have," Wong said.

The fines are intended to convince people to put others before themselves, especially while infections in Framingham remain high.

"The $500 fine is a monetary fine, but the goal behind it is to encourage people not to do this, not only to save lives, but also to be a good neighbor," Wong said. "It may or may not affect your own household, but somebody going to your party might be exposed to the virus and bring it back to their loved ones at home that may have a much weaker immune system."

"I know this is hard," he said. "It affects all of us, and personally, I want to go have fun, be socializing, too. But now is not the time."

If people decide a party is worth a $500 fine, the only other course of action the municipality can take is having police break up the party. That's something only police can do.

"Health departments are not first responders going out on weekends and evenings," Wong said. "We're not. We rely on our partners at the Police Department to provide us with information so that we can follow up with citations."

Baker's order on gatherings states that the state Department of Public Health, local boards of health and municipal and state police are authorized to enforce rules on gatherings.

Brandolini said his department has received calls from people asking why police aren't doing more to squash gatherings, but officers are facing challenging community dynamics that make police departments reluctant to do more than gather information and remind people of the rules.

"Obviously, some people think that this is all ridiculous," Brandolini said. "And the other half, they'd like us to have more power and the Health Department to have more power. So as far as COVID goes, we're just asking people to cooperate with the regulations."

"We don't want to violate anybody's civil rights," he added. "We don't go into homes. We're not the COVID police. These regulations call for a fine, so we're just gathering information for the Health Department to write the fine."

Brandolini said even if officers believe coronavirus safety regulations go too far, they must still comply with his orders as police chief.

In consulting with other police departments tasked with enforcing coronavirus rules in communities identified as having high risk for coronavirus spread, Brandolini found most are also sticking primarily to information-gathering.

"We're taking the stance that we will gather the information and we will pass it on to the public health department and they will take the lead on the citations," he said.

Ongoing protests about police treatment of people of color, sparked by George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, are a factor in the department's reticence to go beyond taking notes and requesting people comply with public health orders.

Most infections in Framingham are among people whose primary language is not English.

"Things are very tense right now," Brandolini said. "We're trying to repair our relationships, so this is just one more component adding to negative interactions with the public, because a lot of them are unhappy to see us when we're asking for them to break up their family gathering. The officers are uncomfortable. That's definitely been a conversation."

On Friday, Framingham announced the city had logged an additional 30 cases of COVID-19, bringing the city's active case count to 153. That's the highest number of active cases in the city since the end of June.

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