A typical spring afternoon in Brooklyn’s sprawling Prospect Park brings a crush of joggers, picnickers and frisbee-throwers. In recent weeks, the park has seen an influx of something else: slow-crawling New York Police Department vehicles blaring a social distancing warning and flashing an accompanying sign saying “Do your part – stay six feet apart.”
But in Brooklyn and in communities across America, verbal warnings are just the start of police enforcement of social distancing policies to curtail the spread of coronavirus ravaging the country. Since late March, New York City has authorized NYPD officers and other authorities to hand out fines up to $500 to New Yorkers who fail to disperse from gatherings after being ordered to do so.
In Florida, authorities arrested a pastor for continuing to hold large services, charging him with two second-degree misdemeanors: unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.
And in Kentucky, several people have been placed under house arrest with ankle monitors after they refused to stay home despite coming in contact with coronavirus patients.
As public officials across America coalesce around the message that people need to remain at home and stop contact with anyone outside their household in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus, more communities are adopting tactics that empower local authorities to issue fines and impose other penalties on those who refuse. Forty-four states have imposed stay-at-home orders.
But while local and state officials say such measures are necessary to force people into compliance, some civil liberties advocates are concerned the enforcement efforts will go too far, running the risk of disproportionately impacting minority or poor communities and raising the threat of financial penalties at a time when many are out of work. Meanwhile, police themselves appear wary of implementing fines and arrests, given that each new encounter with the public could expose them to the virus while potentially fraying relations with communities already on edge.
“Social distancing is absolutely a critical measure, but our knee-jerk reaction to problems as a society tends to be criminalization, and it’s just not the answer, especially here,” said Maryanne Kaishian, a senior staff attorney at the Brooklyn Defender Services.
“Marginalized people will be the most impacted, because we know based on years of data that other low-level offenses disproportionately target black and low-income people,” she said. Poorer neighborhoods tend to have a heavier police presence to begin with, she pointed out, and for lower-income and immigrant families living in multi-generational households, there may be more of an incentive to congregate outside the home.
Others worry that an escalation in enforcement could lead to even greater exposure to coronavirus for both police and the public. Encounters could bring police into contact with sick people or contaminated sites while resulting in arrests that land people in jail, where outbreaks of coronavirus have occurred around the country.
“In some ways it’s ironic that an arrest could be a result [of these policies], because we’re working to rapidly decrease jail populations at this time, and arresting people and incarcerating only puts them at increased risk,” said Leah Pope, senior research fellow in the policing program at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization.
Police in many communities appear to have resisted issuing fines
Criminal justice experts, however, say that the measures are both reasonable, given the circumstances, and not all that unusual. Curfews and other measures were put in place in the United States in the name of protecting the public during Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and amid protests in Ferguson, Mo., though nothing on this scale in a century
“This is really, really important. This is our health and people’s lives at stake, and it’s not universally understood that socially distancing is a matter of life and death. So I’m not philosophically opposed to it at all,” said Jeremy Travis, former president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and a former deputy commissioner for legal matters at the NYPD.
“It’s not unusual for the police or other enforcement agencies to have the power to enforce health regulations,” he added, giving as an example the enforcement of kitchen standards at restaurants. During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 – the closest comparison to the current pandemic – police performed comparable enforcement, making today’s efforts “not conceptually all that novel.”
As to whether enforcement on the ground might disproportionately impact certain communities, Travis said, “That’s not a reason not to do it. That’s just a reason to watch the implementation really carefully.”
And despite concerns about the potential for social distancing policies to run afoul of civil liberties, in practice so far police in many communities appear to have resisted issuing fines, arrests and other punishments, using them only as a last resort, even as in some cases government officials have encouraged them to be more aggressive.
“Certainly voluntary compliance is at the top of the list, because the last thing you want to do is engage in enforcement activities,” said Benjamin Tucker, NYPD’s first deputy commissioner said Thursday during an online panel hosted by the Council on Criminal Justice. “We have 36,000 officers plus, but we have 8.6 million people, and so there’s no way you can enforce your way out of this. You’ve got to get voluntary compliance.”
“When people ask about the enforcement aspect, I tell them that you really shouldn’t get to that point,” said Democratic Mayor Jane Castor of Tampa, Florida.
In San Francisco, police have issued citations to three individuals since the social distancing guidelines went into effect, but in two of those instances the health order violations came in addition to other offenses, according to officials. In one case, for example, police issued a citation to a man for trespassing as the primary offense, with a violation of the California Health and Safety Code added on top of the initial citation.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington DC-based police think tank, said he believes police are trying to avoid antagonizing people.
“Most of the police chiefs I know are doing everything they can not to piss off the community,” he said. “People are stressed already. The last thing they want to do is fine people.”
“This is not a police role,” Wexler added. “This is a public health emergency role. This is a role to help the community. This is the time when the concepts of community policing really have to be operationalized. This is where police can play a huge role in allaying people’s fears and educating people.”
‘Everyone needs to police themselves’
But some public officials have stressed they believe enforcement has been too meek. Earlier this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who had previously signaled he didn’t believe police were adequately enforcing social distancing policies, said he believed the tactics should be “more aggressive,” and raised the fine for violating state directives to $1,000.
“There has been a laxness in social distancing, especially during this past weekend, that is just wholly unacceptable,” he said at a news conference, as pictures of sunny, crowded parks flashed across his PowerPoint presentation.
Some locations are acting more forcefully. On Monday alone, the police department’s COVID-19 task force in Newark, New Jersey, issued 38 summonses for violations of the coronavirus emergency orders.
On April 5, police in Camden, New Jersey, charged a woman with fourth-degree causing or risking widespread injury, fourth-degree contempt, disorderly conduct, and failure to disperse after they broke up a large group of people gathered outside a house, but she refused to leave. “I don’t have to go anywhere,” she allegedly said, according to officials, and then began to cough, telling officers she had coronavirus.
And that same day, police charged a man in Seaside Park, New Jersey, with violating the emergency orders after they found him hosting 15 to 20 people in the backyard of his house.
One man who received a summons after attending a funeral in Lakewood, New Jersey, said in a brief interview that he believed the state’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, had overstepped his authority. “This was harassment by the governor,” Alexander Ellison said. “I didn’t break the law.”
He added, “The law is to protect the spread, but they have to be fair. What the governor is doing is not fair.”
In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, however, police appear to have been tentative about issuing summonses, doling out the 13 they had issued as of last week mainly to people gathered in bars, with none going to anyone in a public space.
In all cases, said NYPD Chief of Patrol Fausto Pichardo, police had given an initial warning to those gathered.
“The reason why people were arrested and people were summonsed is because these are locations where we’ve had to come back and educate the first time and warn. And people did not heed our advice, so of course we’re going to take action,” he said.
“Our overarching goal is to get compliance for everyone in the city, regardless of what color they are, so that we don’t have to take the enforcement action,” Pichardo said. “This is not about the NYPD, this is about every single New Yorker and every single person in this country and frankly the world everyone needs to step up. Everyone needs to police themselves.”
CNN’s Pervaiz Shallwani and Mark Morales contributed to this story.