The Problem with Asking Police to Enforce Public Health Measures

tags: racism, public health, Police, COVID-19

Emily Brooks is a Mellon/ACLS community college faculty fellow and her book, Gotham's War Within a War: Anti-Vice Policing, Militarism, and the Birth of Law and Order Liberalism in New York City, 1934-1945, is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

The United States is grappling with a public health crisis amid a nationwide reckoning on policing and racism. While activists at mass protests call for the shrinking and ultimate abolition of police departments, some mayors and governors have mobilized police officers to enforce public health regulations.

Enlisting law enforcement in this project, however, has already led to troubling results. Early data shows that Black residents made up the majority of arrests for violating social distancing. The New York City Police Department has been reported violently arresting Black residents socializing less than six feet apart without masks, while handing out masks to White New Yorkers doing the same. The NYPD’s high rates of infection combined with officers’ widespread refusal to wear masks and practice of arresting large numbers of protesters further illustrate the risks presented by making public health a policing matter.

As novel coronavirus cases soar and states navigate reopening their economies, questions about how to compel compliance with public health mandates will persist. In this context, we would do well to understand how past efforts to control infectious diseases through policing and incarceration have undermined public health aims, exacerbated racial disparities and expanded the reach of the very “carceral state” that activists are protesting today. New York City in the 1940s, another time characterized by global crisis, concern about infectious diseases and mass organizing against police harassment and brutality, provides a useful example.

As the nation entered World War II, political leaders worried about public health. Specifically, they feared sexually transmitted infections, particularly syphilis and gonorrhea, would undermine the nation’s ability to mobilize a healthy military. Politicians passed laws and devoted resources to criminalizing female sexuality, arguing that law enforcement needed to monitor and contain “promiscuous” women who might pass infections to enlisted men.

In New York City, the campaign to prevent the spread of venereal diseases through policing and incarceration built on other policing revisions. These revisions were designed to professionalize the police department and to crack down on low-level vice crimes such as prostitution and disorderly conduct. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who won election after a corruption scandal discredited the Tammany Democratic machine, wanted the NYPD to enforce prohibitions on vice, rather than accepting payoffs, as had been the norm under Tammany. Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine combined this vision with racist beliefs that the city’s increasing Black and Puerto Rican residents were a “police problem,” and these changes became an opportunity to intensify the police presence in non-White and interracial communities.

Read entire article at Made By History at The Washington Post

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