South Bend Tribune. July 2, 2020.

St. Joseph County health officials make the right call on masks

This week, in the midst of a pandemic that shows no signs of going away any time soon, St. Joseph County public health officials made a common-sense, responsible, science-based decision.

They extended the county’s face mask order through Sept. 7.

The reason for doing so is clearly stated in the new order: “Given that there is no vaccine or medication available to prevent or treat COVID-19, measures such as hand hygiene, physical distancing and wearing face coverings are the most effective strategies to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets from infected persons to uninfected person.”

The mask order, which was due to expire Saturday, requires face coverings for all people inside businesses and enclosed public spaces where social distancing of at least six feet can’t be maintained. It exempts people who can’t wear face coverings for health reasons but goes further by specifying examples of those conditions, including people with “respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease; severe anxiety; autism; cerebral palsy; two years of age or younger.”

There admittedly had been some confusion about masks in the early days of the coronavirus, with experts initially saying that ordinary people without symptoms should concentrate on hand-washing and leave mask-wearing to the professionals.

But health officials worldwide are clear today that face coverings are critical in the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. And that, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the purpose of wearing a cloth face covering isn’t to protect you — it’s to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Locally, county officials credit the mask order with helping contain the county’s infection rate, which has remained lower than some nearby counties, including Elkhart. It’s worth noting that Elkhart County, which has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks — and where officials had previously resisted enacting a mask order — announced a new mask order this week.

All of which should make St. Joseph County’s mask order extension a smart, non-controversial call. But based on reaction to the first order — some of which has been expressed in letters on this page — it’s sure to rub some people the wrong way, with calls of outrage about liberties and rights trampled.

That’s too bad, because, contrary to what some have said, mask-wearing isn’t about politics or personal discomfort or inconvenience. It’s about employing one of the few ways to fight a disease with no cure or vaccine available. It’s about looking out for other people and the responsibility that comes along with rights.

And it’s about containing the spread of a highly contagious virus that so far has claimed more than 120,000 American lives — 65 of them here in St. Joseph County.

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(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. July 3, 2020.

Maintaining public trust key for police officers

School resource officers play a significant role in the everyday lives of the students they protect.

Schools strive to give young people, from all walks of life, the same opportunities to learn and grow alongside each other. Kids develop a trust that their school resource officers — who protect those students and staff — see them as equal among all the others and support the diversity of their school community.

That trust must be treated as a precious commodity.

The Vigo County School Corp. took appropriate action on June 19 in terminating the employment of a school resource officer over numerous, racially charged social media postings. The school district fired Mike Anderson — a VCSC school resource officer who also served as a lieutenant deputy with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department — over Facebook posts regarding the Confederate battle flag and the cause it represented.

The VCSC specifically cited one posting in Anderson’s termination letter, obtained by the Tribune-Star. The scene — reposted on the officer’s Facebook page — showed a reenactment of the Civil War, the bloody conflict from 1861 to 1865 over Southern states’ secession from the Union to preserve their heinous system of enslaving Black people. Wording above and below rows of Confederate rebels read, “It’s not just about history ... the South was right!” Anderson’s comment on the scene said, “total agree.”

The school district letter stated such a social media posting, and others, impair a resource officer’s ability to enforce policies and laws without prejudice, and undermine the VCSC’s ability to do the same. The letter also explains that the Confederate flag is often displayed to offend and intimidate Black people, especially during this time of nationwide protests over racial injustice. A school district employee’s public endorsement of that flag — via numerous social media postings — erodes a student’s trust and sense of security.

While the school corporation terminated the officer, Anderson faced no disciplinary action in his role with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department. Like several county officials and media outlets, Sheriff John Plasse had received a packet of the deputy’s inflammatory Facebook postings distributed by a Vigo County man who has had past conflicts with Anderson.

Sheriff’s Department policies apparently provided no basis for disciplinary action. “Nothing he posted is a violation of our policy,” Plasse told the Tribune-Star.

Plasse did, however, emphasize that he does not condone the postings. Plasse also pointed out the detrimental impact such postings have on the law enforcement profession.

“It erodes the public trust when you see someone sworn to serve and protect who posts something like that,” the sheriff said. “It casts a shade on law enforcement and our department as a whole.”

Anderson submitted paperwork to retire Monday morning after four decades of service. Plasse said the deputy was not pressured and did so of his own volition.

Most notably, though, Plasse said he will review his department’s policy on social media use by employees, with the help of an attorney.

That review is important. As Plasse said, such a policy must not infringe on an employee’s First Amendment rights to free speech. At the same time, officers sworn to serve and protect people of all backgrounds equally are held to a higher standard of public conduct. Those citizens and students should be given no reason to doubt a peace officer views them as equals. The vast majority of men and women in blue serve with exactly that outlook — admirably and at great personal risk.

The public’s trust in that relationship is a cornerstone of democracy and must be handled as such.

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Kokomo Tribune. July 2, 2020.

‘Stake in the community’ rule

In Indiana, July 1 is the date on which a slew of state laws, passed in the previous legislative session, take effect. 2020 is no different.

Health insurers, in most circumstances, now must cover colorectal cancer screenings beginning at age 45 instead of 50, in accordance with a recommendation by the American Cancer Society. The minimum age to marry in Indiana now is 16 years old, up from 15. And motorists now are banned from holding cellphones and tablets while behind the wheel.

House Bill 1358 didn’t make the cut last session, but it’s one lawmakers and the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police should consider in January 2021. It could help improve relations between police departments and the residents they serve, and boost city tax collections at a time when municipal officials are staring at budget shortfalls brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

HB 1358, authored by state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Indianapolis, would’ve allowed cities and towns to adopt local ordinances requiring police officers to live in the places they serve. Current state law only mandates officers make their homes no farther than a county contiguous to the one where their municipal employer is.

After the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a report by Batya Ungar-Sargon and Andrew Flowers for fivethirtyeight.com found 48% of police officers in U.S. cities with a residency requirement live within city limits, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s data. For cities without a residency requirement, it’s just 39%.

What’s more, Ungar-Sargon and Flowers found those cities with residency requirements had police forces that better reflected the racial demographics of those they serve – a goal of nearly every large-city police department in the nation.

There’s another reason why Hoosier cities might want to push the Legislature to allow them to set police residency requirements: revenue shortfalls. Howey Politics Indiana publisher and columnist Brian Howey reported last week property tax collections are down as much as 15% in some Hoosier cities because of COVID-related unemployment. It seems odd that at a time when municipalities likely will be considering hiring freezes or even layoffs to make up for tax collections, many employees from the largest city departments will pay their property taxes to neighboring counties.

In the 1970s, fivethirtyeight.com reports, more than half of the largest U.S. cities had residency requirements for police officers and firefighters. The defense of these local ordinances became known as the “stake in the community” doctrine.

It’s time for a Statehouse discussion on this old tenet, and whether it can improve the diversity of our departments or police-community relations throughout Indiana.

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