Elbert County deputies have discretion on wearing masks

Motorist with health condition raises issue after interaction


Steven Joanis regularly drives from his home in Sedalia to his property in Kansas, passing through Elbert County to do so. Joanis, a retired military veteran and lifelong supporter of law enforcement professionals, was pulled over by an Elbert County sheriff's deputy Nov. 21 for speeding. The interaction left him disappointed and shocked, not because of the ticket he received, but because of the deputy's refusal to don a mask when Joanis asked him to.

“I was going over the speed limit and deserved the ticket,” said Joanis. “But I was shocked when the deputy approached my window without wearing a mask. I assumed he had forgotten to put one on, and when he was about 18 inches from my window I asked him if he didn't need to be wearing a mask. I have a heart condition, and the noise from the road was loud, so the deputy was close to my window and speaking loudly.”

Joanis said he quickly realized the deputy had not forgotten his mask, and was informed that he didn't intend to put one on, even though Joanis requested he did.

“I asked him to put a mask on and he got irritated and said: `We don't have to wear masks,'” said Joanis. “I told him I believed it was a state law, and we went back and forth on whether it was a law or an ordinance, and I told him it was an executive order. His response was simply: `We don't have to follow that.'”

Executive order 2020 138 does state that “Individuals who are actively engaged in a public safety role such as law enforcement, firefighters or emergency medical personnel” are exempt from the mask mandate. Elbert County Sheriff Tim Norton said he leaves the decision up to his deputies.

“We have no official policy in place,” said Norton. “Our deputies make their own decision as to whether or not they want to wear a mask.”

Joanis said he supports the rights of individuals to do what they feel is best for them, but feels deputies, who are sworn to serve and protect, should put the best interest of the pubic before their personal beliefs.

“The only problem with deputies deciding, is that when a deputy walks up to your window you can't run away. You can't not roll down your window,” said Joanis. “I absolutely respect people's right not to wear a mask, but I felt like he was infringing on my right.”

Norton's role is an elected position, and Elbert County officials have no official protocol for mask wearing, and have stated in the past they would defer to the Norton's lead on enforcing the executive order.

Elizabeth Police Chief Stephen Hasler stated that officers in his department are required to wear masks any time they are out in public.

“It is not a police department policy, but an overall town policy that our officers wear masks when they are out in public,” said Hasler, whose position is appointed by town officials.

Neighboring Douglas County Sheriff's Office has stated they “encourage compliance of the Governor's executive order in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Our preference is to educate citizens and gain voluntary compliance if concerns arise. However, the Sheriff's Office is prepared to enforce the executive order if necessary.”

Public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office Lauren Childress confirmed that deputies wear masks when interacting with the public.

“The Douglas County Sheriff's Office deputies are required to wear masks when here in the office and also when dealing with the public unless the situation prohibits,” said Childress.

Joanis said he hopes Elbert County deputies will reconsider their interactions with the public, and be more willing to oblige requests from motorists to wear a mask when interacting with them.

“You never know what the person you're pulling over is dealing with health-wise,” said Joanis. “It's a sad state of affairs for Elbert County, and very disappointing. A potential death sentence seems a little harsh for a simple traffic violation in Elbert County.”


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