Utah County police respond to concerns about mask enforcement

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Some Utah County police officers oppose criminalization of recent mask mandates, favoring education and encouragement over threats.

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith is among local law enforcement who prefer encouragement and education over mask mandates. (Utah County Sheriff’s Office)

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith addressed concerns about mask enforcement in response to the Aug. 27 Provo City Council mask mandate where violations of the order were considered civil infractions and could incur fines of up to $500. The Utah County Health Department passed a new public health order Sept. 22 requiring face masks at all gatherings where social distancing isn’t possible.

“The issue for me is not the mask, it is the approach,” Smith said in a news release. “This is a health issue, a community issue, and should be addressed as such. It should not be criminalized.”

“He would like to see strong efforts to educate the public and to encourage them to do the right thing rather than be part of the problem,” Sergeant Spencer Cannon said of Smith. “He made the suggestion that there shouldn’t be a mandate if it included threat of criminal action.”

Even though Sheriff Smith would prefer no mandate at all, the order more closely aligns with Smith’s desire to decriminalize the face coverings issue.

“The face covering requirement provides for exceptions, local adaptation, and is not intended to be enforced with criminal penalties,” reads a letter from county health director Ralph Clegg and commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie.

Can police departments choose how to enforce mandates?

“Discretion is a huge part of what we do,” Utah Peace Officers Association secretary Dean Adams said. “If fines are in play, as with the Provo mask mandate, the officers and each administrative entity are allotted discretion dealing with individuals and crime.”

Sergeant Cannon said enforcement administrators guide issues of focus, but deputies at the county office “are given great latitude in how they conduct any enforcement operations.”

Cannon also confirmed Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith “will not ask his deputies to enforce any mask mandates.”

“There are many important issues and problems that deputies focus on,” Cannon said. “Taking an issue (like masks) and giving it a focus as criminal behavior seems counterproductive.”

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar

“People generally want to do the right thing,” Cannon said. “When you use a heavy hand by threatening people with charges, that doesn’t work nearly as well as educating them as to why it’s important for all of us to do our part.”

In a blog post explaining her veto of the mask ordinance, Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said several chambers of commerce, educational institutions and legislators asked her not to issue a mask order while “not a single major community partner” encouraged the mandate.

“Provo residents are good people who, through no compulsion, love to do the right things out of the goodness of their hearts,” Kaufusi wrote. “With the demographic we have here, which path would get us to the highest level of compliance? A law requiring masks or asking and encouraging people to wear them?”

Sheriff Smith compared the mask issue to the previous health mandate restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people. “We had incidents of public disorder (and) citizens calling the police on fellow citizens. A mask mandate will generate the same response.”

What about “defund the police?”

“I find it interesting that the nation is demanding police reform, yet every time there is any crisis the response is, pass a law and let the police worry about it,” Smith said in his September 21 news release. “Then the only resource provided to the police is arrest or citation. I believe we can do better than that.”

Smith expressed frustration over Utah County receiving more than $100 million from the federal government to address the issue of face coverings yet still choosing to “dump the problem on the police by criminalizing it.”

The root of the problem

Smith attributed the spike in positive COVID tests in Utah County to Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University students.

“The response should be concentrated on the problem area, not the entire population of the county,” he said. “Both universities already have very strict mask mandates.”

In a letter released on Sept. 22, BYU president Kevin Worthen and UVU president Astrid Tuminez encouraged students to do their part to slow the pandemic.

“Behavior must change,” they said. The presidents outlined potential consequences if improvements aren’t made, including closing campuses, moving completely online or implementing a two-week quarantine.

“Please be wise,” the university presidents said. “Your individual choices will make all the difference.”

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