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Reopening Sparks The Debate About Who Should Enforce Social-Distancing Rules


As states reopen, the job of enforcing social distancing rules often falls to the police. Some people, including police watchdog groups, think that's a mistake. They say breaking up groups of people or checking for masks is the kind of work that erodes trust between law enforcement and the public. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some police agree.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Six feet apart, man - six feet apart.


MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's the newest category of cops caught on camera - cellphone videos of social distancing enforcement gone awry.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I don't want to touch you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you guys crazy?

KASTE: So far, most of these are coming from New York, like this one - officers making initial contact with a crowd of people. Angry words are exchanged and then a scuffle.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yo; what are y'all doing?

DAVID GALARZA: The NYPD shouldn't be thrown at this particular pandemic, at this health problem.

KASTE: David Galarza is with a police watchdog group called the Justice Committee, which wants officers taken off of this kind of duty.

GALARZA: It's overpolicing. It's illogical. It doesn't work. It only leads to more criminalization and violence against these - you know, our people, people of color.

KASTE: New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledges that this has become what he calls an ideological issue, and on Friday he agreed to pull the cops back a bit. They'll no longer enforce the wearing of masks, but the police will still be on the lookout for big groups of people in public. The city points out that the police have had nearly a million encounters with people over social distancing since this started, but that's resulted in only a few dozen arrests. And de Blasio says this situation requires the potential for police action.


BILL DE BLASIO: The NYPD has to be part of this equation. That is my decision. That is what we're doing because we cannot have a situation where social distancing comes unglued because there's no enforcement. Enforcement is part of human life.

KASTE: But it's not just left-of-center activists that are calling for police to back off. Conservative groups are circulating this video online. It was posted by a Port of Seattle police officer named Greg Anderson.


GREG ANDERSON: I've seen officers nationwide enforcing tyrannical orders against the people.

KASTE: Sitting alone in his squad car in uniform, he warns of bloodshed in the streets. The video, which got him suspended, echoes the rhetoric of anti-lockdown protests. But some of his argument could just as easily have come from liberal advocates of community policing.


ANDERSON: What you're doing is you're widening the gap between public trust and law enforcement officers.

KASTE: Police chiefs especially are worried that social distancing enforcement could undermine relations with the community, especially if the rules seem arbitrary. The chiefs are also very leery of getting caught in the middle of the political crossfire. Take the incident a couple of weeks ago in Texas, where the Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News and accused the chiefs in the big cities there of going too far in enforcing his emergency order.


GREG ABBOTT: Another thing that happened that I spoke out on - and that is, in Houston, they were issuing fines and potential jail time for anybody who refused to wear a mask...

KASTE: Houston police say they never fined or arrested anybody over masks or social distancing, and the chief, Art Acevedo, accused the governor of undermining his officers.

ART ACEVEDO: The men and women in blue don't need leaders that are more interested in politics than they are in public safety, and that's what - we expect better from our governor.

KASTE: The chief says going forward, he won't consider the governor's emergency order an enforcement priority.

SUE RAHR: The police department is not set up to protect people from the virus.

KASTE: Sue Rahr is a former sheriff and now director of the police academy in Washington state. She says enforcing public health rules is always going to be tricky for police, even more so now.

RAHR: Clearly, the public is not united on what should be done in the community to keep people safe from the virus. And so the cops really do get trapped in the middle.

KASTE: One potential solution may be to move the officers back from the frontlines. In Clearwater, Fla., for instance, the police hang back while city employees in Bermuda shorts - ambassadors, they're called - roam the beach and remind people to keep their distance. Police Chief Dan Slaughter says the point is to put communication ahead of enforcement.

DAN SLAUGHTER: All that communication is to avoid the officer having to get involved in something that we would, you know, quite honestly wish we would not have to be involved in.

KASTE: It's an approach that's catching on even in New York. Despite Mayor de Blasio's insistence that police stay in the mix, the city says it will field 2,300 civilian ambassadors to take over some of the job of reminding people of the new rules.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "GREEN AISLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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