Can the NYPD keep people apart without arrests?

NYPD Officers in Astoria Park on May 3, 2020.
NYPD Officers in Astoria Park on May 3, 2020.
Ron Adar/Shutterstock
NYPD Officers in Astoria Park on May 3, 2020.

Can the NYPD keep people apart without arrests?

Social distancing regulations raise new challenges for police and old questions of racially disparate enforcement.
May 8, 2020

Does anybody really want the NYPD enforcing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic? 

Donni Wright certainly doesn’t. He is the man who was punched in the face and thrown to the ground by a plainclothes NYPD officer in an arrest on May 2 that was recorded on video by a bystander and shared widely. The scuffle on Avenue D in Manhattan ended with three people arrested and various charges including “resisting arrest,” but it started with police enforcing social distancing.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain, doesn’t want cops to be the ones keeping people six feet apart either. The NYPD “has historical tension in certain communities,” and to encourage more interactions with the police now, Adams said in a May 6 interview on WBAI radio, “is alarming.” 

Adams, who is black, made the point that it’s dangerous to increase people of color’s interactions with the police, even if those interactions are done in the name of health. But to add insult to injury – as Adams noted in a video posted Wednesday – there’s an impression that cops are enforcing social distancing more harshly in low-income, communities of color than in richer, whiter ones. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office reported on May 7 that of the 40 people arrested in the borough for violating social distancing, 35 were black, four were Hispanic and one was white. "We can't let this become a tale of two parks," Adams said.

The backlash to the police’s role has led to some cops themselves wanting to give up the responsibility. “This situation is untenable: the NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. “The inevitable backlash has arrived,” Lynch continued, and now city officials “are once again throwing us under the bus.”

Enlisting cops to enforce social distancing has seemed to cause tension from the start. Even before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially enacted fines on March 30 for those who weren’t following socially distancing safety guidelines, the NYPD had arrested at least three people in Brooklyn. One woman, The Intercept reported, was held in a cell for 26 hours where most people didn’t have face masks.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio passed executive orders demanding social distancing under state and city health laws, but that’s only punishable by a fine. But police stops can escalate quickly, and a failure to comply with an officer’s orders can lead to an arrest. According to Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, there’s no actual crime of “failure to social distance,” so police are arresting violators for more generally applicable crimes, like obstruction of government administration.

However, those arrests are rare. In the last seven weeks, the NYPD reported making at least 120 arrests and issuing nearly 500 summonses for social distancing violations. That’s an average of fewer than three arrests per day in a city of 8.6 million. By contrast, there were an average of 57,143 stop-and-frisks a month in the year 2011, the overwhelming majority of which targeted African Americans and Latinos. 

Fear is not keeping black and brown New Yorkers out of parks, said Adrian Benepe, the former New York City parks commissioner, who now works at the Trust for Public Land. He has visited parks in majority-minority neighborhoods all over Upper Manhattan and the Bronx and saw many people enjoying themselves and only “a very modest police presence.” “It’s been extremely gentle,” he told City & State. “It’s largely police standing there and giving out masks.”

But criticism hit a fever pitch the first week of May, following a weekend when the NYPD upped its staffing citywide for social distancing enforcement. The May 2 arrests in Manhattan caused outrage on social media, and videos of two separate rough arrests in Brooklyn were widely shared. Twitter users shared photos of the aggressive policing of people of color side-by-side to photos of officers peacefully handing out face masks to white sunbathers in riverside parks in wealthier areas. 

There’s no disagreement that some interactions with police arising out of social distancing enforcement have gone horribly wrong. While NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said that “a punch should not be assumed to be excessive force,” he also said he wasn’t happy with the arrest in Alphabet City, and the main officer involved was placed on modified duty pending an investigation. 

Still, de Blasio defended the NYPD’s role in enforcement at a May 8 press conference

“Enforcement is necessary to saving lives and we're not going to have proper enforcement without the largest, best police force in the country being in the game here,” he said. The mayor did acknowledge some room for improvement. The racial disparity in stops needed to be fixed, he said, and officers need “more training” and “clearer protocols.”

In fairness to de Blasio, enforcing the law is normally the job of police, and it’s not obvious why social distancing is inherently different from normal NYPD tasks such as crowd control at parades and other public events. 

But Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer who’s now a professor at John Jay College Criminal Justice, told City & State that if de Blasio and the public are going to blame police for conflicts arising out of social distancing regulations, they could simply refuse to enforce it. “There’s a simple solution,” O’Donnell said. “Police don’t do anything, and people die – but police don’t get blamed.”

Some critics think the mayor is relying too much on the cops, and should adjust tactics – especially as warmer temperatures lure more listless New Yorkers outside. That could mean working with community-based organizations or local clergy to get the right messages across, New York City Council Public Safety Committee Chair Donovan Richards said at a May 5 City & State webinar. “People that people in the communities actually know and respect,” he said. “I’m not saying they don’t respect the police department, but when you come in with a law enforcement-heavy solution, that is not the answer.”

FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh too thought the answer was more about education than enforcement in this “essentially human emergency.” “That’s what we ask people to remember,” she said during the webinar. “If they’re going out and they’re not socially distancing or they’re not wearing a mask, it’s our (FDNY) members that they’re putting at risk, and their friends and family that they’re putting at risk.”

Police officers aren’t the only ones doing enforcement. More than 1,000 employees at other agencies, including the FDNY and the parks department, were called up over the weekend to help keep people socially distanced. Some of them, like Parks Enforcement Patrol officers, technically have the power to put people under arrest, but they rarely go that far. And none of them carry guns. That’s a program that Benepe would like to see go even further with these city employees and peace officers handling more enforcement. NYPD Traffic Enforcement Agents, who have little to no work to do with a decline in driving and fewer parking violations, could be brought in to help, instead of regular patrol officers. 

But maybe, Benepe said, the city doesn’t need that much enforcement at all. “Most people value their lives,” he said. Keeping six feet away from people you don’t live with is like “picking up after your dog. It’s pretty much self-enforcing.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.