Rasco mask donation

Sheriff Bill Rasco and a deputy accept a mask donation from Southern Bancorp in August, the department said in a post Facebook.

The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that it would disregard the law requiring mask wearing and social distancing in the county.

The department said in a statement that it would not enforce the executive order enacted by Gov. Tate Reeves, which says it “may” be enforced by law enforcement and is active in DeSoto County until Dec. 11. Deputies will also not be asked to follow the law while on duty — it will be a personal choice, the department said.

“These guys are risk takers,” Justin Smith, chief deputy with the department, said. “That's what they do as professionals.” 

Smith cited a lack of resources for not enforcing the mandate, saying they have other priorities for their deputies.

“We have no issue with that whatsoever, but we feel like that's a personal responsibility for people,” he said of the measures which have been heralded by health care experts around the world. “If it's something that you're led to do by your medical professionals that are telling you to do these things, that’s perfectly fine.”

Smith would not say whether he believed deputies should take on the personal responsibility of wearing masks, even as COVID-19 continues to spread faster than ever, stretching hospital capacities to their limits.

The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department stands alone in this policy, as other departments in the area — though varying in the level of enforcement of the mandate — require their own officers to follow the law.

Smith claimed that the executive order did not have the force of law because it did not come from the legislature.

Legal experts said the executive order is no different from any other law, adding that the legislature has given the governor the power to issue mandates like this.

Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College who researches criminal and constitutional law, said executive orders can be compared to a judge making a decision in a courtroom — though the decision isn’t made by the legislature, it holds its power from the legislature, meaning its decisions have the force of law.

Though people break the law all the time without being ticketed or arrested, like when driving one mile per hour over the speed limit, Steffey said there is a difference between discretion in how to enforce a law and whether or not to enforce the law. 

“A sheriff, I suppose, could say ‘I’m not going to enforce the speed limit. But that’s not the way we normally perceive a sheriff’s prosecutorial discretion,” Steffey said. “To decide not to enforce an entire category of law like this can be seen as an abandonment of their legal duty.”

Other lawyers say this is not an issue of discretion or legal duty because the executive order explicitly states that it “may” be enforced, not that it must be enforced.

Joshua Tom, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said that the executive order allows law enforcement agencies to do exactly what the sheriff’s department is doing.

Tom also said that he believed that the mandate should not be enforced in the same way that other laws may be enforced.

“Mask mandates are better enforced through public persuasion, public education and ensuring long-term compliance instead of punishing people,” he said.

Still, Tom disagreed with the sheriff department’s reasoning for disregarding the law because it doesn’t come from the legislature.

“That’s wrong,” he said of their justification. “Executive orders have the force of law.”

Though no law enforcement agency in the area has reported citing a significant number of people for not wearing masks or participating in events that are too large without safety measures in place, other departments have encouraged or mandated their officers to follow the law themselves.

Don Gammage, chief of the Olive Branch Police Department, said that he requires officers to comply with the mandate for the safety of the entire community — including the officers themselves.

“At the Olive Branch Police Department, safety comes first for us,” he said. “It’s important that we don’t put our officers in jeopardy.”

Gammage said that the officers have been following the mask guidelines since the Center for Disease Control released them, far before Reeves issued the executive order for the county.

“This is a deadly virus,” he said. “We’re going to comply with the guidelines.”

Gammage said that while Olive Branch Police have not given citations for not wearing masks, officers sometimes ask people to comply with the order when needed. He said when an officer asks, people respond and put on a mask.

Scott Worsham, chief of the Hernando Police Department, takes a similar approach.

Though he said there have been very few instances of people not complying with the mandate in Hernando, he said it falls on businesses to regulate mask wearing and social distancing. Worsham said police would respond to calls of service regarding the mandate.

“I think people have done a good job of policing themselves,” he said, adding that his officers have been given masks and are expected to wear them when social distancing is not possible.

Macon Moore, chief of the Southaven Police Department, said that his department has responded to numerous calls about gatherings of people without masks and individuals not wearing masks in public.

“We just simply remind (people not complying) of the governor’s mandate,” Moore said. “We've not had any issues with nobody not complying once we’ve discussed it.”

Moore said that officers haven’t had to ticket or arrest anyone because of the mandate, but he said the department has made several changes to keep people safe, including officers wearing masks and requiring those they arrest to wear masks as well.

Troy Rowell, the chief of police at the Horn Lake Police Department, has said in an earlier interview that he had no intention of using resources to be “the mask police,” but said that his officers following the mandate often led to people in the community following their example. He could not be reached for comment for this article by the time of publication.

Even after criticism, though, the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department is sticking to its position of disregarding the law, both in enforcement and compliance. 

 

Will Stribling contributed to the reporting for this article.

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