Sheriff Benny Napoleon had to chart Wayne County’s path through the worst of the coronavirus crisis, and his message to sheriffs refusing to enforce stay-at-home orders is clear.
DETROIT, MI — Even as guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus continue to relax after effectively flattening Michigan’s curve, a growing chorus of Michigan sheriffs blatantly refused to enforce Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders.
In Wayne County, though, Sheriff Benny Napoleon pledged to uphold the law. That’s the oath he took.
Some sheriffs in Michigan’s more rural areas have publicly declared that Whitmer’s orders are everything from not enforceable to unconstitutional. The ‘Gander reported on four sheriffs in northern Michigan who bucked Whitmer’s authority. The Detroit News reported that Genesee County’s sheriff refuses to enforce orders based on his discretion, and the Hill reports that Barry County’s sheriff characterized the orders as the mass arrest of all Michiganders.
Napoleon, who was first appointed in 2009 then elected by the people to a full term in 2012, dismissed all those arguments.
“Well, I’m a little different from most sheriffs,” Napoleon told The ‘Gander. “I am an officer of the court. I’m a lawyer. When the Attorney General issues an opinion absent a court of appropriate jurisdiction overturning that opinion, that is considered the law of the land in the state of Michigan.”
Northern Michigan sheriffs refusing to enforce coronavirus guidelines aren’t even just a Michigan problem, reports the Miami Herald, but a growing concern nationwide. Sheriffs are increasingly deciding what law should and shouldn’t be enforced during a time where data from Michigan shows quick, decisive action from Gov. Whitmer dramatically slowed the spread of the disease.
But Napoleon isn’t just any Michigan sheriff. Wayne County is the hardest-hit area in the state.
Johns Hopkins lists it as the fifth hardest hit in the nation. WDIV reports hundreds of officers in the sheriff’s department have tested positive. The Detroit Free Press reports on deputies lost in Napoleon’s department.
Napoleon faces some of the most stark challenges of any sheriff in the state of Michigan, with a community more ravaged than Barry County, Genesee County and all of northern Michigan combined.
Over 200 officers and 40 prisoners have tested positive, Napoleon told The ‘Gander. A commander and a corporal have died from the virus.
Against that background, Napoleon’s department has accomplished a lot when it comes to managing the pandemic: every prisoner in their jail has been tested. Population controls have helped keep social distance in an environment that too-often has proven a tinderbox for the spread of the modern plague.
Napoleon thinks that Wayne County’s department might be the first in the country to test every prisoner and officer.
When the outbreak began, Napoleon reached out to everyone from other sheriffs to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to various departments of corrections for guidance. No one had any. The situation was just unprecedented. So, Napoleon said, Wayne County’s department charted its own path.
“We’ve had a big change in the way we handle business,” he said. “We kind of had to refer to our collective experiences — mine with emergency management and disaster response, along with other people in my agency drawing on their experiences.”
Wayne County has leaned on things like electronic monitoring for 970 offenders, reducing the jail population to 800 — less than a third of the total capacity of the county jails. Visitation has transitioned largely to remote services, those who enter the institutions get temperature checks, and all three jails have been extensively sterilized.
Napoleon has done those things without calling Whitmer’s orders unenforceable.
As a growing chorus of Michigan sheriffs refuse to follow orders, Napoleon said they have the full force of law. That’s from helping to protect the county where one in five sick Michiganders reside and the city where more than one in ten sick Michiganders die.
“Wayne County will be enforcing the governor’s stay-at-home orders as they come to our attention,” he said.