Sheriff’s Office adapting to ‘new normal’

By 
Charlie Denison
Senior Reporter
Friday, May 8, 2020
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Fergus County Sheriff’s Department Detention Officer Kyler Phelps suits up for his shift at the jail Thursday morning. Undersheriff Tracy Lewellen said the department is taking all precautions necessary to keep inmates, staff and members of the public as safe as possible.
Photo by Charlie Denison

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Tracy Lewellen

Fergus County Undersheriff Tracy Lewellen said it’s not exactly business as usual at the Fergus County Sheriff’s Department, but it’s not all that different, either.
That’s especially the case with Fergus County Jail.
“We only had six inmates during the lockdown, so we didn’t have a huge population,” she said. “They were in here before the outbreak really hit, too.”
Having only a few inmates turned out to be a fortunate situation.
“We were able to separate the inmates,” she said. ‘The ones who had been in here the longest we put in one cell together because we knew they weren’t sick or anything.”
Although the office was shut down to the public, some booking still took place, and that process was more complicated than usual.
“We had to test for COVID-19, so we’d have a detention officer all gowned up with a face mask, shield and glasses, asking the individual required health-related questions before proceeding any further. Detention officers have been using safety precautions for almost everything they do.”
This includes wiping down and spraying the premises after every booking, and before and after every shift.
“We’ve been wiping everything down and everyone has hand sanitizer in their office,” Lewellen said. “The jail is probably the safest place to be.”
Things certainly have been different, Lewellen said. For example, dispatchers have been working more with records clerks to help with civil processing, and a number of trainings have been cancelled.
“An interrogation training was cancelled as well as a few others,” she said. “We have a street crime training scheduled for June. It’s still a go for now, but we’ll see.”
Coroner duties have also been impacted.
“That’s been a concern,” Lewellen said. “When an older person has died, we’ve had to make sure they didn’t have COVID-19 by testing them and sending it in. It was a little nerve-racking going into those houses on coroner calls not knowing whether or not that person was sick. I would say, though, that Central Montana Dispatch was good at getting some of that information before we’d go into a home.”

The hardest part of adapting to the pandemic, Lewellen said, has been not having certain services available for the community.
“We stopped doing visitations, stopped doing fingerprints and stopped doing concealed weapons permits, which has been more troublesome for the public than it has for us,” she said.
Cautiously optimistic, the Sheriff’s Department is slowly starting to open back up.
“The biggest thing for us right now is getting back up and running to serve the public and get those concealed weapons permits issued back out,” she said.
Lewellen said the public has been understanding through this crisis and there haven’t been major issues.
“It’s been good,” she said. “We assist the Health District when they ask for our help. If they need us, we respond and do what needs to be done.”
Lewellen added she’s also grateful to see crime take a dip.
“We’ve had a couple DUIs and some trespassing calls, but that’s about it,” she said. “Most of that has been pretty standard, but we are emphasizing caution when we pull someone over.  We always use a mask when we approach somebody. All our deputies have at least three different kinds of masks in their trucks.”
It’s going to take some time before things get back to what was once considered normal, but Lewellen said she has faith that this community will continue to do the right thing and follow the guidelines to the best of their ability.
“The people of this county have done great,” she said. “I believe the sheltering in place has helped quite a bit. We’ve really lucked out and are grateful the county hasn’t had a single case.”

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