Social Distancing, Without the Police
Letting members of the community enforce social
distancing is the better way.
Of the 125 people arrested over offenses that law
enforcement officials described as related to the
coronavirus pandemic, 113 were black or Hispanic. Of
the 374 summonses from March 16 to May 5, a vast
majority — 300 — were given to black and Hispanic
Videos of some of the arrests are hard to watch. In
one posted to Facebook last week, a group of some
six police officers are seen tackling a black woman in a
subway station as heryoung child looks on. “She's got
a baby with her!” a bystander shouts. Police officials
told The Daily News the woman had refused to comply
when officers directed her to put the mask she was
wearing over her nose and mouth.
Contrast that with photographs across social
media showing crowds of sun-seekers packed into
parks in wealthy, whiter areas of the city, lounging
undisturbed as police officers hand out masks.
So it is obvious that the city needs a different
approach to enforcing public health measures during
the pandemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to
understand this, and he has promised to hire 2,300
people to serve as social distancing “ambassadors.”
Hopefully, the mayor will think bigger.
One promising idea , promoted by City
Councilman Brad Lander and others, is to build
quickly a kind of “public health corps" to enforce
In this approach, specially trained civilians could
fan out across the neighborhoods and parks, helping
with pedestrian traffic control and politely encouraging
New Yorkers entering parks to protect one another by
wearing masks and keeping their distance. Police
Department school safety agents, who are not armed,
could help. Such a program could also provide muchneeded employment for young people, especially with
New York's summer jobs program, which serves
people 14 to 24, threatened by budget cuts.
Another method to help social-distancing efforts
may be the community-based groups that have been
effective in reducing gun violence in some of the city's
The Police Department would play only a minimal
role in this approach, stepping in to help with crowd
control, for example, something it does extremely
Without a significant course correction, the
department's role in the pandemic may look more and
more like stop-and-frisk, the policing tactic that led to
the harassment of hundreds of thousands of innocent
people, most of them black and Hispanic, while rarely
touching white New Yorkers. Mr. de Blasio has scoffed
at the comparison, though it's not clear why.
Aggressive police enforcement of socialdistancing measures is nearly certain to harm the
health and dignity of the city's black and Hispanic
It could also diminish respect for the Police
Department. Which is why it makes sense that the
city's largest police union has said that its members
want little to do with social-distancing enforcement.
“The N.Y.P.D. needs to get cops out of the socialdistancing-enforcement business altogether,” Patrick
Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent
Association, said in a statement on May 4. On this
issue, Mr. Lynch gets it.
New York is facing a public health crisis, not a
spike in crime. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are
already suffering disproportionately from the
coronavirus. They don't need more policing. They
need more help.
Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/opinion/nypdcoronavirus-arrests-nyc.html. Accessed May 18,2020.