Law Enforcement Played ‘Minimal Role’ in COVID-19 Enforcement: Study

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A New York police officer promotes the 'Doing Our Part" campaign. Photo by Michael Fenichel, via Flickr

As Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, police are unlikely to play a significant role in enforcing compliance with health advisories restricting travel and limiting the number of people around the dinner table to curb the spread of COVID-19.

So far, they have rarely enforced local government restrictions on businesses and social interactions during the pandemic, according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Online.

A random survey of 370 police departments across the country in June and July found just 10 percent took proactive steps to enforce compliance with COVID-19 guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

More than 70 percent said they opted instead to “encourage” individuals and businesses to obey the rules, according to the survey, which was conducted in collaboration with CivicPulse, a platform that educates local governments on national issues.

At the onset of the pandemic, many cities and towns issued only “advisory” notices to the population in an effort to stem the spread of infection. But a few levied stiff fines for businesses which violated shutdown orders or occupancy restrictions.

In the past few weeks, however, as a deadly new wave of infections hit the U.S., the approach to enforcing guidelines has toughened, with curfews and stay-at-home orders imposed in many places.

In San Diego, for example, Sheriff Bill Gore announced last week he would assign eight deputies to investigate complaints about violations of a “stay-at-home” order issued by state authorities. Violators would be slapped with citations.

Many police agencies have been cautious about enforcing guidelines, in some cases because of the polarized political climate and in others blaming the lack of sufficient manpower. Adding to the problem, official health advice from bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

The survey found that police took a more laid-back approach, focusing on “encouraging actions, ” such as putting up posters and posting notices on social media.

But health experts say the “relaxed” view of enforcement may have contributed to the onset of a second wave of COVID-19.

In the spring, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed that the NYPD would begin issuing fines up to $500 for social distancing violations, and, in more serious cases, citizens would be arrested for not following social distancing orders.

But the rules were barely enforced.

The Wall Street Journal reported that despite over 14,000 complaints to police about people violating social distancing rules , officers only issued 21 summonses and made five arrests in connection with the complaints.

More recently, despite New York Governor Andrew Cuomo limiting holiday gatherings to 10 people in the coming weeks, sheriffs across the state say they won’t be interfering with “the great tradition of Thanksgiving dinner,” according to the New York Times.

A sheriff in the state’s “Southern Tier” region spoke to reporters and vowed that his deputies would not go “peeking in your window” to count the faces around a table, while another New York sheriff told the Times that entering residents’ homes “to see how many Turkey or Tofu eaters are present is not a priority.”

More often than not, police departments in the forthcoming study also reported being much less concerned about the pandemic and enforcing restrictions. Some 10 percent of responding departments believed COVID-19 guidelines were “unnecessary.”

Technology-Assisted Compliance and Mass Surveillance

 Perhaps unsurprising, given this lack of enforcement actions was departments’ use –or rather, non-use – of surveillance technology for COVID-related purposes,” the authors write.

“Even though the [survey] proposed a list of six different technologies that might be used,92.1 percent of departments reported no use of any special technology for the enforcement of stay-at-home orders or other COVID-19 related purposes.”

Of the departments using any type of technology, the most common method cited was through monitoring video cameras (5.9 percent). Four police departments reported using drones, cellphone location data and credit cards to trace violators, and two used utility data such as energy bills.

The lack of monitoring contrasts starkly with the approach of other industrialized countries, the authors wrote.

Countries such as Taiwan, Australia and South Korea, for example, all use cell phone location data to track the movements of infected people. This helps them better enforce quarantine orders and to help with contact tracing.

France, Israel and China all use drones to make sure people are staying at home and complying with curfews.

While some may say these measures are Orwellian, the authors note that using these technologies to enforce compliance have worked; a majority of the aforementioned countries have been able to flatten the curve and begin getting back to normal life.

Overall, the authors conclude, it was extremely rare for police departments to use sophisticated surveillance technology to monitor COVID compliance, and their results show that most departments, especially departments in smaller jurisdictions, “played a minimal role in enforcing COVID-related restrictions and tended to only encourage compliance.”

The following researchers participated in the study:

Matthew B. Kugler is an Associate Professor of Law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where he researchers the intersectionality of psychology and law and is an expert in law and social science.

 Mariana Oliver is a Graduate student in the Northwestern University Department of Sociology, where her areas of interest are law and society, urban crime, and local government.

 Jonathan Chu is an affiliated scholar at Stanford University and a political scientist specializing in public and elite opinion on issues involving democracy. Chu is also the Director of Operations at CivicPulse.

 Nathan Lee is an Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as the Founder Managing Director of CivicPulse.

The full paper can be accessed here.

Additional Reading: Do Police Treat Minorities Differently on Social Distancing?

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