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 nonp