Law Enforcement As Disease Vector
Chicago L. Rev. Online (Nov. 16, 2020)
9 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2020
Date Written: Oct 11, 2020
As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”) wears on throughout the United States, state and local governments are left to determine—with very little, if any—helpful direction from the federal government, how to proceeding with protecting the health and safety of their residents while also trying to determine if or how to start “opening up” their respective economies. Some of this confusion includes the implementation of a pastiche of executive orders issued by governors around the country, as well as how to enforce such orders.
Some jurisdictions have approached the issue of implementation by aggressively policing populations, arresting individuals for failing to maintain social distancing, failing to wear cloth masks, or flouting quarantine orders. In New York City, as of May 18, 2020, 125 people were arrested for coronavirus-related offenses, while 374 summonses were issued: The vast majority of those arrested or receiving summons were either black of Latinx. The perverse irony of such aggressive policing tactics enforcing practices such as social distancing and wearing masks arises given that such tactics do nothing to encourage the public health mission whatsoever; not only are people faced with the threat of being sent to carceral institutions where conditions allow Covid-19 to run rampant, but the police themselves serve as a vector by which the disease spreads. Police interact very closely and physically in the communities they occupy, often rendering their own infection rates much higher than their jurisdiction’s general population. In turn, because they are more concentrated in both minority and lower-SES neighborhoods, those same officers pose a greater risk, once more, to those communities.
The public health risks posed by the police have been thrown into even starker relief since the beginning of protests across the country since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 of this year. Though many people throughout the country on that date were continuing to shelter at home in an effort to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19, many decided that the public health risk of protesting police brutality was worth it: Protestors have, in essence, made the decision that the police pose a greater public health risk to their communities than a pandemic. They are, very likely, right. At the very least, violent tactics on the part of police have only compelled people to stop social distancing, while the use of tactics such as tear gas can aggravate respiratory systems, resulting in a lessened ability to fight off the virus and increased coughing by affected protestors. We should not forget, however, that even before the outbreak of COVID-19, police violence has posed mental health threats and risks to poor and minority communities. In this sense, police cause and spread illness, undermining their supposed goal of ensuring public safety. In the same vein, prosecutors who continue to do nothing to address or stop police misconduct and violence only allow it to spread, rending law enforcement a disease vector.
A number of tools are at the disposal of governors, mayors, and other heads of local government to protect their citizens from public health threats. It is now time that they recognize police as the public health threat that they really are, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and take measures to assure the health and safety of their communities against epidemic of police abuse and violence.
Keywords: Police, COVID-19, Policing, Public Health, Epidemic, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, People of Color, Race
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