Cass County commissioners discuss coronavirus impact, police accountability

CASSOPOLIS — Though parts of the state are beginning to reopen to the public following months of COVID-19 shutdown, Cass County buildings’ doors will remain locked for now.

Thursday, the Cass County Board of Commissioners met via Zoom. During the meeting, County Administrator Jeff Carmen addressed the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the county. Though he said the county had purchased personal protection equipment and introduced stringent sanitation measures, the county’s buildings would remain closed to the public for the time being.

While the physical buildings remain closed to the public, Carmen said Cass County residents are still able to access services by calling ahead, making appointments, utilizing the county’s website or using the drop box at the county building.

“We have continued to provide service during this time — we never stopped providing services,” Carmen said. “The county is not closed. The buildings are closed.”

Carmen could not provide a definitive timeline for when residents may see the county buildings reopen. Instead, he said county officials would continue to monitor the situation and follow best practices laid out by the state.

Also Thursday, county officials addressed the national unrest that has been taking place following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, who was killed in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, held a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke started the conversation during his regularly scheduled public safety report. He extended condolences to Floyd’s family, who hosted a memorial in Minneapolis Thursday evening, before saying the Cass County Sheriff’s Office condemns the actions leading up to Floyd’s death.

Behnke said his officers are trained in proper de-escalation and restraint practices, noting that Cass County officers do not use the restraint used against Floyd. He added that Cass County officers are required to report every time force is used, and that each report is reviewed by command staff.

“Officers are expected to protect the communities they serve, and [the Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death] have degraded and discredited our profession and broken the trust of those we serve,” Behnke said. “We pledge to continue to seek the highest standards for the men and women who wear the uniform of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.”

Later in the meeting, County Commissioner Skip Dyes, the only African American on the county board, said he spoke with Sheriff Behnke regarding George Floyd’s death and law enforcement’s role in the community. Calling the conversation productive, he said he wanted to further discuss the topic with the rest of the county’s commissioners.

“I think we need to get ahead of this,” Dyes said. “I think we just need to be aware and share some dialog and get some new ideas into the county. From the county, we can change the world.”

Administrator Carmen agreed, and said planning for discussions would begin “very soon.”

In other business:

• County Commissioners approved an annual L-4029 resolution that allows the county to levy its 2020 millage rates of 5.8177 mills. According to Cass County Equalization Director Tami Stewart, the move was a routine one and that all millages listed in the L-4029 document had already been approved.

“This is nothing new,” she said. “This is something that gets done by every taxing entity in the state every year.”

• The board approved the purchase of a 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe police vehicle for the Cass County Sheriff’s Department. The total cost of the vehicle is $41,855, $16,000 of which will be paid for through a secondary road patrol supplemental grant.