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3 Apr, 2020 17:59

Are NYC cops contributing to coronavirus epidemic by sending people to packed jails for violating social distancing?

Are NYC cops contributing to coronavirus epidemic by sending people to packed jails for violating social distancing?

As Covid-19 lockdowns keep three-quarters of Americans indoors and see crime rates drop, New York police are arresting people for social distancing violations in a move that flies in the face of safety advisory and public policy.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has released hundreds of low-level offenders from city jails, including the notoriously overcrowded Rikers Island, citing the risk of uncontrollable coronavirus contagion. New Yorkers are being told – constantly – to stay home and do their part to “flatten the curve.”

But police don’t seem to have received that message, continuing to arrest and detain people for minor offenses – including violations of social distancing orders – without masks and gloves, even as crime plummets. As more and more officers become infected themselves, intensifying “coronavirus policing” defeats the purpose of the measures the government has taken to stop the spread, packing low-priority “offenders” into jails that are nothing short of petri dishes.

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Police claimed they arrested three people in Brooklyn last weekend for failing to maintain “social distancing” after chancing upon a gathering of about 25 people outdoors in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. One of those arrested disputed that narrative, telling the Intercept that she and her boyfriend were standing far from the group when they were roughly apprehended by unmasked, ungloved officers. She claimed she was held in a cell with two dozen others for 36 hours, deprived of any sort of cleaning products beyond a squirt of hand sanitizer, highlighting the absurdity of arresting people for violating social distancing rules only to process them through a jail system that is sluggish and overcrowded. 

A man running a speakeasy in south Brooklyn where patrons were found drinking and gambling in defiance of the closure order for non-essential businesses was also arrested on Sunday. However, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced weeks ago that his office would not be prosecuting “low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety” during the epidemic calling into question the wisdom of charging the speakeasy operator with “illegal sale of alcohol” and “promoting gambling” in addition to violating social distancing. 

The NYPD can’t be completely faulted for its confusion over the new guidelines. De Blasio threatened repeat social distancing violators with fines of up to $500 earlier this week, and typically for such low-level offenses the next step up from fines would be arrests. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the NYPD to step up its enforcement earlier this week after crowds were seen amassing on Manhattan’s West Side Highway to watch the arrival of the hospital ship USNS Comfort, declaring that the force “has to get more aggressive” but without making clear whether he meant fines and summonses, or actually hauling violators off to jail.

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Crime has declined sharply amid the coronavirus crisis – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that so many people are sheltering indoors – with a 20 percent drop for the two weeks since New York declared its emergency, the NYPD reported Thursday.

But the virus is increasingly taking its toll among the NYPD’s own ranks: by Wednesday, 1,400 officers had tested positive for coronavirus, and 6,172 were out sick, over 12 percent of the force. Given the lengthy incubation period of the virus, even officers who don’t experience symptoms themselves may be passing it on to the people they arrest, who then spread it through jails before potentially bringing it home to their families and coworkers.

New York is the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the US, which is number one for infections anywhere in the world. The city has recorded some 2,935 coronavirus-related deaths as of Friday, more than a quarter of the nation’s total.

However, New York isn't the only place to lock people up for violating social distancing - numerous states and municipalities have threatened to do the same, and some, including Maryland, have followed through. Several countries, including Italy and the UK, have also threatened violators with jail time, though it's not clear how many of them have actually imposed the penalty to date.

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