The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented public health crisis that is only getting worse in some parts of the country. Some state and local governments have mobilized police forces to curb the spread of the virus. Many governments have used police officers to punish people who violate social distancing or mask-wearing regulations. This enforcement, unsurprisingly, has only revealed the racism and aggression that is characteristic of American police departments. Given the tendency for police to resort to violence, and the police’s abject failures during the pandemic, it’s clear that new solutions are required.
Police have become the automatic answer to every problem in American society, whether that’s mental illness, sexual and domestic violence, fare evasion, homelessness or now — social distancing and mask-wearing. But while police involvement is far-reaching, vesting police with ultimate authority over public health matters has not produced good outcomes. During this pandemic, they have been documented refusing to wear masks and violently attacking people, especially people of color. The consequences of racist policing and their standard aggressive tactics are especially dire now.
New York is no stranger to racist policing. The New York Police Department targets and terrorizes Black and Latinx communities, and these practices have continued with the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has allowed for the development of new arenas in which police racism can continue legally. In enforcing social distancing regulations, the police have been recorded violently attacking and arresting people while they themselves are not wearing masks. People of color are overrepresented as the targets of these measures, comprising 80% of social distancing arrests between March and May.
Encounters with police always have always had the potential to be deadly, since police often escalate volatile situations and use force as a first resort. Now, the encounters have become deadly in a number of ways. The NYPD recklessly endangers New Yorkers, especially those who are marginalized, and puts them at risk for infection. This extends beyond some officers not wearing masks — those arrested have reported being packed into dangerously small, unsanitary jail cells with dozens of others without masks and only one small drop of hand sanitizer each.
Evidently, the NYPD has not been keeping New Yorkers safe. So, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s decision to allow police to confront and penalize people with fines for not wearing masks is questionable at best. The MTA is continuing to deploy police during the pandemic, an extension of their policies in recent months of increasing police presence in subway stations, using the NYPD to punish alleged fare evaders and increasing surveillance.
There are a number of de-escalatory tactics that can be used to address the issue of people not wearing masks, although it’s important to stress that 90% of subway riders have been wearing masks according to the MTA’s own admission. Filling the subway stations with more and more police is not a measurable or fair response. The MTA could use unarmed and trained de-escalators like crisis responders to provide masks. Masks should be handed out at every single station’s entrance if maskless riders are going to be punished. This is standard for airplane procedures, where airlines have strict regulations regarding mask-wearing, yet don’t resort to violence or endangering public health.
Clearly, other institutions are capable of keeping the public safe without violently attacking and endangering them. The NYPD have constituted an active threat to public health and as the coronavirus threatens resurgence, it is more urgent than ever to switch to de-escalation tactics instead of policing.
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Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]