A detective with the Keene Police Department, the agency responsible for enforcing the city’s new indoor mask mandate, suggested last week that people disobey that policy.
In a Facebook comment, Lt. Jason Short equated supporters of the mask requirement, which the City Council adopted last Thursday to help curb a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, to “the bad guys in movies” who think they’re helping society.
“It is only when the ‘good guy’ stands up to them that they realize they are wrong,” Short said in the comment. “Citizens need to stand up and stop simply complying to this nonsense mandates [sic].”
Wednesday afternoon, the comment appeared to have been deleted.
But other comments Short made on the mask mandate were still on Facebook at the time, including one in which he said City Council “chooses to ignore” common sense. In a separate Facebook comment, in response to a Sentinel story about the mask ordinance, he claimed falsely that the new rules are not law.
Short did not respond to multiple inquiries by The Sentinel this week about whether his personal opposition to the indoor mask mandate, which went into effect Monday, would keep him from enforcing it.
Still, his comments raise questions over how strictly Keene police will punish people caught violating the new rules. Even city officials, including some who backed the ordinance, have admitted it will be difficult to enforce.
Keene police Chief Steven Russo said Wednesday he was aware of Short’s social media comments on the mask mandate, including his suggestion that residents not comply. Those remarks do not violate department policy, he told The Sentinel in an email, because they were not made while on duty nor to represent the views of the department or city.
Under RSA 98-E, New Hampshire law gives public employees the “full right to publicly discuss and give opinions as an individual on all matters concerning any government entity and its policies.”
Police officers, Russo said, “do not lose their Constitutional privileges because of their career field.”
“Lt. Short will enforce the Ordinance consistent with my guidance and in the same spirit as all of our Officers regardless of his personal feelings,” he wrote. “To think he is the only [law enforcement] Officer, business owner, doctor or judge in the area with an opinion on this topic, is naïve.”
Enforcement of the city-wide mask mandate was hotly debated at the City Council meeting last week, especially after councilors amended the rules to fine repeat offenders, rather than businesses that fail to impose them.
That change, which was aimed at shielding local merchants from needing to lay down the law, essentially made it impossible to enforce the mandate, according to Mayor George Hansel. Despite warnings from Hansel and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon that municipal staff hadn’t reviewed the amendment, city councilors voted 10-3 to approve it.
People who violate the new ordinance — which exempts children under 10, anyone with a medical or developmental condition that makes wearing a mask unsafe, and indoor diners — will be given verbal and written warnings for their first and second offenses, respectively. They will then be fined $100 for a third offense and $250 for subsequent infractions.
Keene police are responsible for enforcing those penalties, Dragon said after the City Council meeting last week.
That could be more challenging than under the city’s previous mask mandate, which punished businesses that failed to enforce the rules, not individual violators, and which expired in July, she said. Officers will likely need to keep track of more offenders now, Dragon said, adding that Keene used a rudimentary system — a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet — to document violations last time.
“Our police department will focus on educating the public,” she said after the meeting. “They’re very good at that. I’m confident we’ll be able to come up with a plan.”
Dragon did not respond to an inquiry this week about whether Short would be disciplined for his social media comments and whether his views could prevent him from enforcing the mask mandate.