OGDEN — Preparing for the worst, a major part of Ryan Arbon’s job, is being made more difficult by tides of misinformation.
“Anxiety, frustration, anger,” Arbon said, ticking off what he and other law enforcement people are seeing arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and controversies over issues such as the movement for social justice, police reform, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol breach.
Arbon, Weber County’s elected sheriff, spoke in an interview Wednesday about worrisome trends and potential sources of trouble. He talked of steps he and his agency are taking to encourage calm while improving readiness.
In late January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a national terrorism advisory bulletin warning vigilance.
“Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence,” the bulletin said.
“We do know people are interested in that, follow that, believe in that, but we haven’t seen anybody necessarily act out on that yet,” Arbon said. “I hope it never does happen.”
He is concerned about increased chatter on social media and other channels about false or distorted issues that can inflame situations.
“Social media, there’s a lot of anger and hate,” he said. “We’re concerned about that boiling point that may spill over. We’re not there yet.”
For example, COVID-19 mask wearing has been a big source of complaints, he said.
He’s received emails, Facebook messages, letters and phone calls reminding him of his constitutional obligations and asking him, “Are you going to enforce the mask mandate?”
Arbon said he reminds people that health department and governor’s orders calling for mask wearing to reduce coronavirus infections are a civil not criminal matter.
“Everybody thinks they’ll go to jail,” he said. “I’m not doing enforcement of mask mandates.”
Those orders “are mainly about businesses,” he said. “This is not us.”
One woman told Arbon she has a doctor’s order saying she has a medical condition that prevents mask wearing.
She wanted him to charge a business that refused her entry.
“It’s not criminal. It’s civil, maybe a lawsuit,” he said.
Arbon and several others from the Sheriff’s Office went to Portland, Oregon, last summer to observe how police were handling nightly protests, which sometimes got violent.
Announcements by police on social media, such as alerts to avoid traffic snarls where protests were occurring, often were quickly drowned by misinformation, he said.
“I probably won’t forget that for a long time,” he said.
Similar situations arise when there are police shootings, Arbon said.
“The information that would come out would be partial, sometimes not true, people would draw their own conclusions, it gets passed among other individuals,” he said. “Now they hate police and the hate builds and spills over.”
As for police reform, Arbon said, “What a lot of individuals don’t understand is that we are reforming daily.”
If an arrest is challenged and officials find that changes are warranted, “we immediately go to the policies and change those things,” Arbon said.
In the past year, the Sheriff’s Office has increased training in crisis intervention, de-escalation and issues involving civil disorder.
Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training requires officers to undergo 40 hours of training per year to maintain certification, but Arbon said Weber deputies do 100 hours.
Arbon said he is trying to promote transparency in his agency so more people are aware of how the office operates.
He hopes it will help cut down on the growth of misinformation that can endanger public safety and inhibit police.
Arbon praised the local community for how it handled racial justice protests last summer. They were conducted peacefully in expressions of free speech, with no need for police intervention.
The best protests are when the organizers obtain permits, he said — spontaneous protests are more likely to escalate.
The Sheriff’s Office also fielded various inquiries and complaints in recent months about a subgroup of Huntsville Town’s emergency preparedness team that espoused additional “civil unrest” readiness.
The Sheriff’s Office has stressed that it doesn’t need help from any armed civilian groups.
Arbon said he views his office as an apolitical supporter of the expression of rights, be it the right to peacefully assemble or the right to bear arms.
Even so, vigilance has increased, he said. His office has assigned a deputy to work in the Area Tactical Analysis Center, formerly known as the Ogden Police Department’s Real-Time Crime Center.