State Police Don't Plan To Crack Down On Counties That Defy Shutdown

May 13, 2020

The Pennsylvania State Police do not plan to take a harder line approach to enforcing Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order, even as some local officials pledge to reopen without the governor’s permission.

Authorities in Beaver County expressed anger Friday when they were not among the southwestern Pennsylvania counties authorized to move into Wolf’s yellow phase of reopening. And they have joined a handful of eastern Pennsylvania counties in saying they will lift pandemic restrictions this week without the governor’s blessing.

Wolf said Monday that he would withhold federal recovery funding from rebellious governments, and also threatened to revoke certificates, liquor licenses and certificates of occupancy from non-compliant businesses.

But state police Lt. Col. Scott Price said that while his department has “the authority to take enforcement action” against those who violate Wolf’s orders, it will try to cooperate instead.

Price said troopers have taken that approach since the beginning of the shutdown, placing an emphasis on “encouragement, education, and work to build the public trust [while trying] to explain why it’s important to follow these orders.”

In fact, state police have issued only 329 warnings and one citation to firms that have operated in violation of Wolf’s shutdown order, according to Price. He said there have been no citations and 30 warnings regarding worker safety.

Thirty-four individuals, meanwhile, have received warnings for violating the state’s stay-at-home order, and seven have been cited. Price said those citations resulted from “egregious, sort of willful noncompliance” such as “underage individuals electing to have a party in a motel.”

Price said his agency generally does not police municipalities that have their own local forces.

“That’s not the way we operate in what I refer to as normal times,” Price said. “We don’t go in and second-guess or supercede the municipal police, and we aren’t doing that in this situation either.”

In response to district attorneys, including Beaver County’s David Lozier, who have said they will not prosecute businesses for reopening, Price said “that situation’s not necessarily completely foreign to us.” For example, the lieutenant colonel said, prosecutors across the state take different approaches to prosecuting possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“We respect the district attorneys’ decision or discretion to not prosecute,” Price said. He added that even if state police “feel that enforcement action needs to be initiated,” district attorneys, “through the judicial process and as the chief law-enforcement [officers], can make decisions beyond that point as far as how to proceed or not to proceed with prosecution.”

Price said if troopers were to “pursue some sort of closure order for [a] business,” they likely would do so after they "engage in a conversation with the [Pennsylvania] Department of Health." He said the state would consider taking such steps if “a willful violation of a stay-at-home order creates a greater public health risk,” or if a business remains open despite receiving two or three warnings.

But Price said while there has been “some confusion” about the pandemic restrictions, most people and businesses have complied.

“We think people want to do what’s right under the circumstances,” he said.