Policing A Pandemic

A lot has changed in the past few months, including how we police ourselves. Police departments across the country have been grappling with new power that would be authoritarian without the context of a pandemic, and face a number of challenges in implementing stay-at-home orders in their respective states. Police are often forced to choose between respecting individual rights and preventing public gatherings in the name of public health and are still navigating how to redefine their role as officers of the law. In some states police are not only tasked with making sure that citizens limit person-to-person contact, but also must patrol gatherings with angry, unmasked protesters, often putting those who are assigned to the protest at an even greater risk at contracting the virus. Tensions are at an all time high with the prospect of economic collapse, mass unemployment, and a rising death toll, but the fundamentals of a law-abiding society have not changed. Policemen are required to enforce isolation measures and uphold the rule of law, but the public also has the responsibility to follow the law and respect the police for doing their jobs. 

Law enforcement officers are essential workers, and the nature of their job means that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is astronomically high. This past month, over 20% of New York’s police force called in sick, with over 2000 officers testing positive for Coronavirus, and many others self-isolating out of fear of spreading the virus. By its nature, policing is a job that often forces officers to get close and personal with the citizens they interact with, ranging from a normal day-to-day interaction with a citizen to a full body search and arrest of a civilian who may have broken the law. However, crime in New York has been dropping. A huge reason for this has been because of the isolation measures in place, but New York’s Police Commissioner, Dermot Shea, is still worried about the evolving nature of crime in New York.

“What concerns me is there’s a storm on the horizon, because even though crime is down substantially, you do have certain segments of the criminal population committing crimes where they can.” 

According to Newsday (a Long Island publication), the latest data shows that “while major felonies such as homicide, burglary, rape and robbery have declined 28% since mid-March, the total of such offenses has started to creep back up. Notably, burglaries are up 29% in that period while auto theft has stayed at the same level. In the past two weeks, police data showed robberies inching up about 9% and grand larcenies rising more than 27%.”

While this small snippet of data does not tell the whole story, it’s definitely revealing that the pandemic has reduced crime in the short term by forcing most of New York into isolation, and forcing those who venture outside to remain six feet apart and avoiding interactions that may otherwise have turned into altercations. But as we reach the two-month mark, a number of U.S. citizens are beginning to grow restless as they protest for governors to open bars, restaurants, and other public institutions. Protests in Michigan have forced police to intervene as protestors blocked roads leading to a nearby hospital, and attempted to storm the Capitol building. Unfortunately, the circumstances require that we give up our personal liberties in exchange for the wellbeing of our fellow man, and while we are entitled to our government doing everything it can to slow the spread, the majority of that burden relies on us.

More importantly, respecting the work that police officers do goes hand in hand with holding them accountable. A number of reports and videos across the country have shown cops conducting traffic stops without wearing a face mask, telling citizens that they aren’t allowed to wear a mask, and even coughing on citizens while on film. On the other side of the coin, citizens are also being arrested for congregating in public and coughing on others, with one woman being arrested for coughing on $35,000 worth of produce at a local store. With this in mind, it’s important that we make sure that the discretion police have in making arrests is used in accordance with the law, and not infringing upon the rights of others. In fact, a number of black citizens across the country have voiced their discontent with police action in the pandemic, often arguing that wearing a mask in public could easily be deemed as suspicious by cops on patrol, exacerbating racial tensions between minorities and the police. 

“No person should be fearful of engaging in lifesaving measures due to racialism,” said Marc Banks, national press secretary of the NAACP. 

Like everyone else, cops are in the midst of a global health crisis, and are forced to put themselves at risk as essential workers. Additionally, the political whims of each state’s governor may make an officer’s job harder as their duties may alternate between upholding the rule of law and protecting the general public. As a number of cities and states begin the process of opening up, a successful reintegration in society will require cops to maintain order without losing the trust of the public, which may mean letting citizens resume their public activities, even at the expense at their own health. As I mentioned previously, COVID-19 has increased the power of the beat cop, and with great power comes great responsibility. No policeman wants to break up a law-abiding pickup basketball game, or a family picnic, so don’t force them to. Shelter at home when possible and avoid outside contact until the number of outbreaks in your area has been reduced to a controllable number, and at a bare minimum, follow the law. 

For more information, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

Cameron Edgington
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