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Policing During a Pandemic: The Mayor Must Alter City's Approach

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Policing during a pandemic (photo: @NYPDnews)

As we face one of the most pressing global health crises in over a century, New York City continues to use ineffective and, at times, discriminatory policing practices. For evidence that they aren’t working, one need look no further than the controversy regarding the de Blasio administration’s clumsy attempt to manage the crowd attending the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a revered leader of Williamsburg’s Orthodox Jewish community. For even more recent proof, there's the disturbing video of an incident in lower Manhattan that started with officers policing social distancing and ended with a violent, seemingly unprovoked assault on, and arrest of, an innocent bystander. 

The city maintains it is following the recommendations in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Guidelines for Coronavirus Prevention, the first of which is to follow “tips for social distancing from authorities.” However, giving the responsibility to NYPD officers and expecting that they will safely and effectively administer these new guidelines is not an effective solution. Here are some of the specific problems with this approach:

NYPD officers still resort to tactics that their training and own inclinations lead them to; they use force and intimidation to resolve problems at hand—a “might makes right” approach that is exactly the wrong way to achieve the community’s compliance with social distancing requirements.

Officers must break social distancing rules to issue a summons or make an arrest. This activity puts both officers and members of the public at risk.

Over 7,000 of the 36,000-member police force have called in sick since the pandemic began affecting New York, and more than 2,000 police officers have returned to work after “recovering from the virus.” As we learn more about how the coronavirus spreads and how symptoms do not show up for several days if at all in some people who carry the virus, we cannot be sure that more NYPD officers aren't sick than what has been reported.

NYPD arrest and ticketing practices disproportionately target low-income black and Hispanic communities. These practices create a greater risk for vulnerable communities during the pandemic.

The fines officers issue for social distancing violations range from $500-$1,000, an unreasonable burden, especially for the poor New Yorkers of color who are and will be experiencing the brunt of police actions.

On the other hand, we offer suggested practices that will make compliance with social distancing a safer and fairer process for all our communities:

End the use of the NYPD (and other police forces) as the enforcers of state and city social distancing orders.

Enlist community leaders and local clergy with the responsibility to achieve compliance with social distancing and other relevant rules and to work with their communities on a collaborative basis to ensure safety without involving punitive law enforcement practices.

As examples of the kind of community leaders who can perform social policing effectively, the city should look to the credible messengers who carry out the central work of the Cure Violence programs that are located in neighborhoods throughout the city and that have proven successful in working with young gang members to significantly reduce local conflicts.

Furlough some NYPD officers to reduce the number of cops on the street and to curtail the spread of the virus.

More effective and benign, these measures will help achieve the desired goal: a safe, just, and healthy city for all New Yorkers. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we rely on our communities to protect and care for their neighbors. We are the ones who keep us safe. It is people, not police, who will achieve that critically important goal.

Bob Gangi is the executive director of PROP, the Police Reform Organizing Project, where Luke Messina is associate director; Marzian Alam is policy analyst; and Mikaela Berry is communications coordinator. On Twitter @PROPNYC.

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Tags: NYPDpolicingcoronavirus

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