Despite overlapping goals and responsibilities, public health officials and law enforcement are often unclear on how to access and utilize each other’s services. The lack of collaboration became especially clear to me in 2010, when Oregon participated in the Social Distancing Law Project sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and directed by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The Social Distancing Law Project provided tools to jurisdictions to: assess the sufficiency of the legal authorities to enforce social distancing; test the capacity to coordinate social distancing measures (like closing schools and public gatherings) across multiple agencies and jurisdictions; and identify potential opportunities to improve response capacity. The process clarified that law enforcement needs to better understand public health laws and its role in enforcing those laws. We also discovered that public health officials do not understand how to utilize assistance from law enforcement. For example, local health departments did not know how to seek assistance from a police officer in order to locate an individual under an isolation or quarantine order.
With the support of Oregon's Public Health Preparedness Program, I collaborated with Josephine County (Southern Oregon) on a model memorandum of understanding (MOU). The MOU established the roles and responsibilities of public health officials and law enforcement in enforcing public health laws.
The local public health authority in Josephine County was ready and willing to participate. The preparedness coordinator helped form a small workgroup made up of county and city law enforcement, an attorney for the county and state and local public health officials. I wrote up a draft MOU using CDC's Menu of Suggested Provisions for Public Health Mutual Aid Agreements leaving the substantive terms of the MOU blank. The draft was shared with the workgroup and we met for a one day face-to-face meeting to hammer out the details.
It was important that this agreement not just be about how law enforcement can assist public health officials, but also about ways that public health officials can assist law enforcement. The parties came up with great ideas about how to provide law enforcement with information on vaccinations and communicable disease. There was, as you might expect, interesting discussion about the extent to which force can be used by law enforcement when assisting public health officials. In the end it was agreed that law enforcement would not use force unless law enforcement believed reasonable force was necessary to protect themselves, public health officials or the public. After the meeting, I edited the MOU to reflect the discussion and, with minimal back and forth, the parties agreed to sign the document. However, one county commissioner refused to sign the MOU because she disagreed with the state's authority to take private property during an emergency (ORS 401.188, 401.192).
I'm not aware of any other such MOUs and I think this process, at the very least, can be a great starting point for law enforcement and public health officials to engage on a common ground.
This information was developed by Shannon O'Fallon, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Oregon Department of Justice in collaboration with the Network for Public Health Law. The statements made in this blog should not be attributed to the Oregon Health Authority, Public Health Division or the Oregon Department of Justice.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.