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Chief Naulty’s Primary Duty

Twenty-five days (as of last week) into an historic statewide lockdown, Fort Bragg is feeling the strain.

Like Mendocino County as a whole, the town is seeing a marked surge in interfamily disputes, domestic violence, and suicide.

On March 26, a woman jumped to her death off the Noyo Bridge. On April 1, a 28-year-old man stabbed a 68-year-old woman in a domestic violence incident. On April 9, an 81-year-old woman assaulted her 89-year-old husband, also in the home.

These are the awful outliers — nearly all coast residents are grumpy and surely will not look back at every moment of Lockdown 2020 with pride. But most people are at least making it with conscience and limbs intact.

Law enforcement deals with the outliers, though, and Fort Bragg Police Chief John Naulty is keenly aware of the outlier-nature of the whole situation his officers are dealing with in this time of COVID-19.

"It's the first time the nation has dealt with anything like this," he said Tuesday, while keeping an eye on a Board of Supervisors meeting where they were expected to discuss the job of the county's Public Health Officer, Dr. Noemi Doohan. Naulty talked about a fast-evolving and sometimes chilling situation in Fort Bragg, but one that so far has stayed out of worst case scenario territory.

Keeping an eye on the Public Health Officer's fate is not usually part of the police chief's purview, but throughout the state, Public Health Officers have been handed a kind of power that would have been unimaginable even a month ago. Local law enforcement must first understand, then enforce, a set of orders like none of us have ever heard before.

Naulty gave high marks to county government for communicating — to him at least — the gist of Shelter in Place orders that change regularly and are making people increasingly unhappy, either in their particulars or their overall effect of putting lives, but not people, in suspended animation.

Just a quick sampling of the Fort Bragg (and Ukiah) police call logs shows how things have changed.

On March 24, just before the stay at home order, the log is pretty typical — very low on actual crime, populated mostly with person to person contacts — homeless people the largest portion, plus assorted distraught, confused, angry, vindictive or just curious members of the public.

The April 14 log paints a different picture, not so much in the type of calls, but in their frequency and intensity. At 8:11 a.m., two women fighting on Gobbi Street in Ukiah. At 8:31 an irate person causing a disturbance in the Walmart parking lot. Also 8:31 a.m., a white male with a shaved head tattooed blue running in traffic waving a California State flag.

The day continues heavy with calls of people fighting, freaking out and threatening to harm themselves and each other.

Again, nothing particularly new, but the increasing frequency backs up Naulty's assessment that people are moving closer to the edge. He said he's glad the trails are re-opening, that people need to get out and enjoy themselves any safe way they can.

How to handle out of towners or neighbors calling in reports of children playing in front yards without proper social distancing, or even businesses sideways with county orders (compliance is now pretty universal, Naulty said, with no citations issued), is on the lighter side of duty these days, though.

One thing that concerns Naulty a lot is what happened to a Santa Rosa Police Detective Marylou Armer.

Detective Armer died March 31 of COVID-19. As she got sicker, she asked to be tested. Her doctors at Kaiser Permanente refused her, telling her she was too young to worry. The Santa Rosa Police Department either didn't weigh in or didn't have the clout. 

Naulty said that is not going to happen in Fort Bragg. The department has a routine including daily temperature checks to make sure officers are healthy. He said he's satisfied for now with the amount and quality of the protective equipment — masks, gloves, etc. — the department has been provided by the state, though until recently that wasn't so.

The availability of tests is still a weak point. So far, according the Coast Hospital Medical Chief of Staff William Miller M.D., 60 tests have been done on the coast, not including the positive test in Gualala March 18. Miller said 23 people have been tested at Coast Hospital — 21 patients and two healthcare workers. Twenty nine tests have been done at Sherwood Oaks Convalescent Hospital and seven at Mendocino Coast Clinics, both in Fort Bragg. All known results are negative, he said, with 13 results pending.

But no one is guaranteeing that an officer (or firefighter or ambulance worker etc) could for certain get tested if they're showing symptoms.

Naulty said his eye is on that and if an officer seems to be getting sick "I would drive them to the front door of the hospital myself."

Naulty praised the teamwork so far between city officials, city council members, the hospital (Mayor Will Lee is also part of hospital administration) his department, the relatively new Street Medicine Program, and the Sheriff's Office, especially in contacting homeless people and helping move the most vulnerable into motel rooms in Fort Bragg.

But the very nature of that work makes the still shaky protections being provided first responders a prime issue for Naulty.

Protecting fellow officers is kind of "a thing" for him, as he puts it. Understanding how much of "a thing" it is for him means knowing that on March 19, 2014, when Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino was slain in the line of duty a few miles north of Fort Bragg, it was Naulty who arrived first on the scene and stopped the gunman who took Del Fiorentino's life with a round from his service weapon.

Naulty, who was hired to be police chief in February after a five year hiatus from police work, speaks quietly and steadily about what he will do to see that his officers are safe dealing with COVID-19.

"I'm a pretty forceful person when I need to be," he said, noting again the close collaboration between city and hospital officials so far.

"I have a way of making things happen. And human life is important to me. A police officer's life is very important to me."

Naulty said he wanted to make sure the people of Fort Bragg know too that their patience, effort and forbearance is admired and very much needed.

"That is what will get us through this," he said of his home town for decades. "This is a special community. It knows how to come together."

Anyone needing help with mental health issues or violence or other abuse in the hone can call the county's Mental Health Warm Line at 707/472-2311. For emergencies still call 911.

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