In his latest media availability, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal blasted the state prison system for its decision to release inmates nearing the end of their sentences in response to COVID-19 outbreaks inside San Quentin and other facilities. 

Honsal said these inmates aren’t being quarantined prior to release, and he also indicated that some likely have violent criminal histories.

He also addressed the impacts of facial coverings on law enforcement and the question of whether the public really needs education about safety protocols, or if they’re just deliberately not following the rules.

Below, as usual, you’ll find timestamped questions and summaries of the sheriff’s responses. Or you can watch the full video above.

(0:10) How have crime numbers been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Call volume is down compared to last year, Honsal says. From March through June of 2019 the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office had 20,408 calls for service; during the same period this year the number was was 18,763. Burglary calls are down by 29 percent, domestic violence calls are about the same and calls to assist the public are up by 26 percent. 

Fireworks calls were up a whopping 361 percent over last year, he says. 

(1:18) Has social distancing posed a problem for deputies responding to these calls?

Yes, it hampers community policing to stay six feet away, “but they are still out doing their job,” Honsal says.

(1:47) How have mandatory facial coverings impacted how deputies patrol?

It hasn’t really impacted patrol, but officers are required to wear facial coverings when entering a building or out in public and unable to social distance, Honsal says. There are instances when deputies have to lower their facial coverings — for example, to allow someone who’s experiencing communication difficulties to read a deputy’s lips.

(3:00) Have there been times when deputies were disciplined for not wearing a mask?

If a deputy is blatantly disregarding the HCSO facial covering policy “then yes,” Honsal says, “there is a disciplinary process for that.” 

(4:11) Has the CDC made specific recommendations for law enforcement agencies to protect officers from exposure to the public, or have you revised department procedures for that purpose?

Yes, CDC has released guidance, and it’s the same advice pretty much everyone’s getting: wash your hands, sanitize surfaces, wear facial coverings and, when coming into direct contact with someone who’s likely contagious, wear an N95 mask and goggles. 

(5:36) Have the facial coverings made it tough to identify suspects?

That has happened — at the recent robbery in Trinidad, for example, Honsal says. (That suspect has since been identified as the man shot dead in Blue Lake last week.)

(6:03) As California releases its second wave of 3,500 prison inmates in response to COVID-19 outbreaks, how many have been transferred to Humboldt County? And what has the county done to provide housing for those inmates?

Honsal says he doesn’t necessarily agree with the state’s response to infection outbreaks in prisons. The HCSO was recently notified that about a dozen inmates with 30 days or less left on their sentences will be released here, and officials are working to line up temporary housing. 

That housing should be for “our residents and our homeless,” Honsal says, but “the state is pushing off an issue on us and our county.”

About 20 inmates with 180 days or less left on their sentences will also soon be released to Humboldt County, he adds. “That is going to be problematic.”

(8:48) Some of those inmates may have a criminal history that includes violent crimes, though the state has listed them as “nonviolent” based on their most recent offenses. Can you give any information on the criminal backgrounds of those recently released here?

Probation is the lead agency, but the crime histories should be public information, Honsal says. If the public needs to be alerted about an inmate being released, the probation department will do that, he says.

(10:00) Do you feel these releases pose any danger to the local community?

“Well, I do,” he responds. “I think, public health and public safety — it’s an unknown. We’re going to have 30-plus inmates from the California State Penitentiary coming here, into our county, and they have not been able to control the spread of COVID-19 within the state prison system.” 

They’re not being isolated now and won’t be upon arrival, he adds. “They’re just gonna be released into our county. So I believe that is problematic, and I don’t think it’s very responsible for the state to do so” Honsal says. 

(10:56) You’ve often stressed education over enforcement in upholding the county’s or the state’s shelter-in-place orders. Can you talk about some hypothetical circumstance that would cause you to cross the line to “enforce” rather than “educate”?

The HCSO’s goal is not to pile on offenses. “This is a misdemeanor offense, okay?” Honsal says. There are certainly businesses out of compliance, and the HCSO is developing a process that moves from verbal warning to written warning, “and then that next offense will be a citation.”

(13:25) Isn’t everyone pretty much clear on what the rules are now? Do you find that the people you educate are truly unaware of what the governor or local authorities are mandating? Or are most of them just deliberately disobeying those orders?

There are people who are frustrated and want to attend weddings or go out to restaurants, Honsal says. Some are choosing not to comply with the rules due to “COVID fatigue.” But the virus is still in the community. “COVID is out there, and whether you like it or not, it is spread by people getting together,” he says.