It’s Time to Distance Ourselves from Policing

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Catherine Auerbach

The systemically racist nature of the NYPD makes it not quite a surprise that they’ve found yet another way to brutalize black people. And with an annual operating budget of $5.6 billion, disproportionately arresting black and Hispanic New Yorkers for social distancing violations fits nicely in the checkbook. For the past few months, with New York City becoming a global epicenter for the coronavirus, the government has placed many restrictions on daily life in attempts to prevent the spread of this deadly virus. While stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing remain at the forefront of quotidian upheaval, these policy changes have also resulted in the over-policing of black and brown communities, a theme that has transfigured itself in new ways again and again in New York City’s law enforcement system.

Policing social distancing, at first glance, may seem like a reasonable idea in order to incentivize people not to go out so as not to get arrested. It appeals to a fear of encountering police as a motive to work from home. A tremendous fault in this policy is that it assumes everyone has the means to social distance, which is simply not true. Essential workers do not have the luxury of working from home each day, and are thus susceptible to be arrested for something they may have no control over, like commuting on crowded public transportation. For black communities, who already fear and feel police presence in their neighborhoods everyday, this policy means more police encounters, more neighborhood monitoring, and with it, high disparities in the racial demographic of social distancing arrests and summons.

In order to move towards equity in our communities, social distancing must become a non-policed issue because this type of policing disproportionately harms black and brown communities. According to NYPD data, between March 16th and May 5th, 304 out of the 374 total summons handed out for “violations of emergency procedures and acts liable to spread disease” were given to black and Hispanic people. Similar disparities were seen in Brooklyn, where, as confirmed by the Brooklyn DA’s office, 40 people total were arrested from March 17th to May 4th for not following social distancing measures, 35 of them being black, 4 being Hispanic, and only one being white.1 These summons and arrests take on additional significance knowing that on some of the same days they took place, photographs were taken of police officers freely handing out masks to predominantly white sunbathers in Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Long

Donni Wright, who was arrested for social distancing violations, had his head kneeled on and was called a racial slur by officer Francisco Garcia.

Island City.2 With many videos of black residents being met with brutal force by police (such as Donni Wright, who was arrested and for social distancing violations and put in a chokehold by NYPD officer Francisco Garcia) being circulated on social media platforms, many New York residents and politicians raised their voices online. State Attorney General Letitia James, who called these disparities “deeply troubling,” shared that, “It is inherently wrong to aggressively police one group of people yet ignore another group that commits the same infraction.” Other figures like Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea defended the NYPD’s actions, saying “disparities exist in every facet of life, not just in New York City, but in this country,” suggesting they were rooted in societal forces outside of the control of the police. And, in a sense, he is right. There are disparities in our societal forces. But they don’t act on their own; those disparities are amplified when police act inequitably in their enforcement of the law.

So what are these societal forces, and why are they affecting our policing? Why are black communities being harshly overpoliced for social distancing violations while mainly white communities stay unscathed? Understanding this requires a deep delve into a past of police misconduct and racist legislation, as well as the impact these actions have had on black communities over time. Following Commissioner Shea’s claim that these disparities are not to be blamed on the police, a simple answer to a societal force causing these disparities is that more black people are commuting during COVID-19. According to the Current Populations Survey, black workers are more likely to be employed in essential services than white workers, with 37.7% of the black population working as an essential worker as contrasted with 26.9% of the white population.3The racial wealth gap, due to centuries of oppression and a lack of accumulation of generational wealth for black Americans, adversely affects access to high-quality education, which can affect one’s ability to move into a higher-paying job that allows one to work from home.

Redlining has also severely affected access to good education. Redlining, the past refusal of banks to invest in black neighborhoods and infrastructure, has decreased the value of homes in black neighborhoods. Since public schools are funded by property taxes, they are plagued by minimal funding due to low home ownership rates. The segregation of our communities causes many black students in black neighborhoods to go to underfunded schools that often can’t support them with adequate materials to obtain a higher paying job. And it’s not just a matter of “work harder,” as while whites in the bottom household income quintile have a 10.6% of rising to the top quintile, black Americans only have a 2.5% chance.4 This education inequity, combined with income and wealth disparities between the average black and white family, all contribute to black Americans making up a larger percentage of the essential workforce. With more black Americans commuting each day than white Americans, it will likely be harder for black communities to maintain social distancing measures, for example, when taking public transportation. So, yes, there are “societal forces” that could influence this policing. But methods of over policing in intentionally segregated communities are adding an additional crackdown to communities already disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Black communities have a past filled with overpolicing. Divestment of banks from black neighborhoods through redlining went hand in hand with the deployment of police officers to these neighborhoods. These officers were sent to secure white comfort in newly developed white suburbs during and after white flight (a phenomenon of mass exodus of white people out of their neighborhoods when their area becomes more ethnically diverse) in the 50’s and 60’s. With a higher police presence in black communities than white communities, more black Americans will be caught committing crimes by police than white Americans. This does not mean that black Americans are more “criminal” than white Americans, but rather they are far more likely to get caught, fabricating a harmful stereotype of black criminality that the media perpetuates. Therefore, a further addition of police to black communities to monitor social distancing only worsens this situation by placing people who are less likely, because of work and social conditions, to be able to abide by social distancing laws in a situation where they are far more likely to get caught, creating these horrible disparities. These methods of social distancing policing have also been compared to other harmful policies like stop-and-frisk, which was nationally criticized due to the ease at which racial profiling could impact how and which citizens were arrested. Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke to this issue, saying, “We went through this battle with stop-and-frisk, of the disproportionate enforcement and over-criminalizing of our communities. It’s a mentality that continues to permeate, but unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me.”5 Like stop-and-frisk, social distancing policing is a tactic hidden behind the disguise of public safety that, in its enforcement, is effective in brutalizing black communities.

The initial solution of some people, upon learning of the disparities, might be to send more police to white areas as well, so policing can be done “equitably.” My first response to this would be that higher numbers of police do not always (more, very rarely) mean lower rates of crime, as seen in Memphis, where the rate of police officers per 1,000 residents has been dropping for two decades. Meanwhile, violent crime rates have also dropped.6 This means that sending more police out to white communities as well would not necessarily mean that more people will start to abide by social distancing laws. Second, even with the same police-per-population ratio, black and white communities would still be treated differently. This is evident in the fact that, due to racial profiling, young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men.7 Black communities already feel and fear police presence everyday, and sending more police out at all, even if to white neighborhoods as well, will only magnify this issue. It will help to perpetuate the cycle of more police equals more crimes caught equals more police. While black communities will bear the impact of this additional policing for generations to come, white communities will remain relatively unharmed. And so there is no true “equitable” way to police, as sending more police out at all, even if in equitable quantities, will create dangerous disparities. There is no equity in policing when the very existence of our police and enforcement of the law is systemically racist.

It can be exceedingly difficult to try to find a “solution” to systemic racism when it is fully embedded in the systems that control our lives. That doesn’t mean, however, it is okay to sit back and do nothing. My first proposal would be to make social distancing a non-policed issue. Policing social distancing does not work to fix the problems it arrests people for, merely to punish them for it. Overpolicing black communities will not change the fact that New Yorkers need to commute and may have to be within six feet of another person at some point in their day. It does not change the fact that black communities are plagued with issues of homelessness, with black Americans making up 40% of the US homeless population but only 13% of the overall US population, and homeless people have nowhere inside they can go and social distance. Social distancing “equitably” is simply impossible. “Equitable” social distancing policing would require questioning every group seen together and asking if they live together or are family, which is not plausible given NYC’s population of 8 million. It would require arresting anyone on a crowded subway or bus for not social distancing, when many probably don’t have the choice to take a car. Policing social distancing makes it a criminal issue, rather than a health one. Rather than handing out masks and hand sanitizer to all, which would be proactive and promote good hygiene during COVID-19, police are using this time as a means to arrest, which just leads to more people filling up NYC jails, packed in with other inmates, heightening the possibility of the spread of disease. Social distancing policing is inequitable and must be abolished.

Defunding the police is another essential step in working towards equity, not just in terms of social distancing policing but in all forms of law enforcement. To “defund” the police does not mean to completely revoke the NYPD of funding, but rather to take some money out of their extensive budget and allocate it to other departments that need it more, and could actually work at solving some of the same problems as police. For example, money could be moved from the NYPD’s annual budget to housing or education. These departments would be able to utilize that money to, for example, make affordable housing and good education more accessible, working to lessen racial disparities at the source rather than through criminalization. Anyone has the ability to contact their local government about the redistribution of government funds to various departments. By contacting the officials for your district, city, county, or state, you have the ability to potentially help implement real change.

Systemic racism will not be “solved” in a week, a year, even a decade. America was built on racist ideals that have governed us in the past and continue to govern our lives today. But the first step towards abolishing our racist policies and systems and creating new, equitable, productive ones is raising our voice when we see injustice. There is a famous saying from the Torah that says, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” It is not our role to put an end to racism ourselves, but there is no world in which change can be implemented if we continue to stand idly by.