Policing the Pandemic: This is Nothing New

Policing the Pandemic: This is Nothing New
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

By Alexandra H. Smith, Sarah Young, and Michael Pate of the Brooklyn Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society

As public defenders in Brooklyn, we are not at all surprised by the devastating statistics released last Thursday night by the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. The statistics show police arrested 40 people for social-distancing violations from March 17 through May 4, and of those arrested, 35 people were Black, four were Latinx and one person was white. More than a third of the arrests were made in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brownsville. Newsflash: no arrests were made in the more white Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights or Cobble Hill. Sound familiar? Remember Stop and Frisk? Broken Windows policing? The NYPD is now using social distancing enforcement as a new pretext for racist police tactics.

This is nothing new.

As public defenders, we see the disparate impact of policing People of Color on a daily basis. We see it in our own communities, as well as in our client’s communities. As Michelle Alexander discussed in her renowned book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Sociologists have frequently observed that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns.” This is exactly what is happening in New York with social distancing policing. In fact, the failure to socially distance is not even a crime. Yet it is being treated as one in communities of color.

Last Sunday, as the sun shone brightly in Prospect Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park and in the predominantly whiter neighborhoods of Park Slope and Williamsburg, there was conspicuously no police presence whatsoever. We saw photos of police officers politely handing out masks to white people in Central Park. Meanwhile, in Brownsville and Bedford -Stuyvesant, the police were out in full effect.

At arraignments, we frequently meet young People of Color, arrested under the pretext of not “social distancing.” Ironically while being processed for these needless arrests, people are placed in a cell with many other people, where social distancing is not even an option. While the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office says that they have declined to prosecute these social- distancing arrests, that doesn’t make up for the trauma and indignity of being treated like a criminal, handcuffed, caged, with no PPE, often for over 24 hours. Regardless of whether the charges were dropped, the impact of these arrests are long lasting for a person, sending a strong message that your life does not matter.

Mayor DeBlasio stated on the Brian Lehrer Show this week that the NYPD’s enforcement of social distancing should occur with the “lightest touch possible,” but this is clearly not what is happening. We all saw Mr. Donni Wright being violently attacked by Officer Garcia in the video that went viral last week. We watched in horror as Officer Garcia, who was not wearing a mask himself, held a stun gun and forced Mr. Wright to the ground, hitting him while kneeling on his neck, causing Mr. Wright to be hospitalized for severe injuries to his back, ribs and chest.

As public defenders we know that these recent arrests based on social distancing are nothing but a ruse used by the NYPD to police and terrorize Black and Brown communities, while keeping their arrest numbers high.

While this is nothing new, it cannot stand. As the legendary Civil Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson discusses in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption; “the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

We as public defenders at the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn call for a moratorium on social distance policing. We, as a society will be better for it.