A line has been crossed, local law enforcement says, after nearly 20 people gathered outside the private home of San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon to protest public health orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“This seems to be a disturbing new trend that is not just local here, but in other parts of the state and country as well,” said Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer.
Officers were called about 12:30 p.m. Thursday to Jollon’s home after a group had gathered to protest.
Officers approached the crowd, Brammer said, which was loudly expressing its objection to COVID-19 regulations, as well as the actions of SJBPH and specifically Jollon.
It’s Colorado law that people or groups are not allowed to target specific people at their homes, what’s known as “targeted residential picketing.”
“The practice of targeted residential picketing does not seek to disseminate a message to the general public but, instead, seeks to harass and intrude on the privacy of the targeted resident,” the law says.
According to the state law, officers must first take people’s names and addresses, and issue a written warning. If an individual is caught again targeting a residence, a citation is written for a misdemeanor with a fine up to $5,000.
Brammer said officers chose to educate the protesters at Jollon’s house about the state law, rather than issue a written warning.
“Initially, they thought they were not violating the law,” he said.
Brammer said the protesters refused to give their names, but officers have body camera footage of the individuals and license plate numbers, and investigators are in the process of identifying them.
“If the same people return and violate the statute, we would be able to write a summons,” he said.
Brammer said the protesters did not return Friday.
He said the road the group was on is a private road, but it’s not access controlled, so technically, it is public.
“I was certainly caught off guard yesterday and really feel for my neighbors,” Jollon said.
Jollon pointed out that public health orders are issued by the state of Colorado, not SJBPH.
“Like others, I personally don’t love wearing masks, and I miss my spending time with my friends and family, and sure as heck miss eating indoors in restaurants, because I’m a really terrible cook,” she said. “But this isn’t about me. It is my job is to protect those who may get sick and die.”
Jollon said that means doing things we might not like doing – like wearing a mask. She said it also means her job is to make hard decisions to enforce the state orders that are intended to keep people from harm’s way.
“I would be negligent in my role if stood by and let COVID spread rampantly when we know the simple act of wearing a mask saves so many lives,” she said.
Durango has seen numerous protests and marches since the pandemic started in March, but for the most part, all of those demonstrations have happened on public spaces.
The only other instances of protesters picketing outside a public figure’s home were when a group formed twice in the past year outside Mayor Dean Brookie’s house.
“It is disconcerting,” Brookie said.
Brookie said what makes the situation more unsettling is the unpredictability of people in a group mentality, and the possibility of the protest getting out of control and potentially violent.
“That can be very dangerous and the outcome can be unpredictable,” he said. “That is disturbing in Durango.”
Local health and law enforcement officials have expressed dismay at the news of protesters outside Jollon’s home.
Ann Bruzzese, president of the Board of Health for SJBPH, said protesters have every right to express their objections outside the health department’s offices. But it crosses the line showing up at someone’s own home.
“I personally find it disconcerting that people would go to someone’s private home,” she said.
Officials in Southwest Colorado have been on high alert as the potential for protests, possibly armed, ramps up in the days leading to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Earlier this week, the FBI warned that protests are planned in all 50 states in anticipation of Inauguration Day on Wednesday, some of which will likely include armed protesters and could turn violent.
While the hope is any gatherings remain peaceful, the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office are preparing should the worst-case scenario arise.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, but we are planning for any event that happens to transpire,” Brammer said. “Our main concern is our community. That’s where we’re going to focus our energy.”
DPD plans to increase patrols around Jollon’s home.
“There’s a fine line between First Amendment rights and an individual’s right to privacy in their own home,” he said. “People should be secure in their homes.”