If Cops Don’t Wear Masks, Can They Enforce COVID Safety Rules?

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San Francisco police. Photo by Torbakhopper via Flickr

Earlier this month, in Kansas City, Mo., two speakers at a Police Board of Commissioners openly criticized police officers for “routinely not wearing masks in public” — despite being ordered to enforce mask-wearing and even to hand out masks at the very same board meeting,

Some large cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York do order police officers to wear masks, but many ignore the order or say it interferes with their duties, the Associated Press reports. 

 And a substantial number of U.S. police agencies avoid the issue entirely by leaving it up to individual officers to decide whether or not they want to cover their faces while interacting with civilians.

Many advocates say this results in contradictory health policies.

Kansas City had exempted essential workers —such as police officers and first responders — from mask-wearing, although citizens were required to do so while in public.

Following the Board of Commissioners meeting, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas issued a series of stricter mask-wearing guidelines for officials, including cops. He cited the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the area,

Yet a week later, reporters from The Kansas City Star arriving at the scene of a fatal shooting were startled to see more than a dozen officers gathering in small groups without masks on. They observed that while some of them, including a deputy chief, were wearing masks — others were clearly disobeying the mayor’s new health directive.

The Kansas City Star reporters asked Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a police department spokesman, about the mask mandate and lack of participation while on the scene, and Becchina said supervisors were supposed to ensure that all officers have the necessary equipment and comply with the emergency order.

“All members have been given direction to comply with the emergency order for wearing masks and social distancing,” Becchina insisted.

Local governments in Ohio have similar mask-wearing exemptions for safety workers, alarming some members of the public when interacting with officers.

Debra Kendra, an Eastlake, Ohio resident and healthcare worker, said she called local police to come to her house to talk with her daughter last Thursday and was appalled when officers entered her home and refused to wear masks — even after she offered them new ones in sealed packages, according to a Cleveland ABC affiliate. 

When the Associated Press reached out to police union officials, they either “declined to discuss the issue or said local police departments should take the lead on masking decisions.”

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has also routinely come under fire as public criticism of officers not wearing masks in public has mounted, resulting in the department issuing memos accompanied with a video to the department in October, according to the New York Times. 

“It is our responsibility to set the example for our great city and do everything we can to help ensure that we do not have another hospitalized member bring this deadly infection into our homes or have another funeral,” Terence A. Monahan, the chief of department and the highest-ranking uniformed officer, said while appearing in the video.

Some of the public criticism of non-compliant police officers in New York has resulted in over 150 formal complaints against the NYPD since March coming from the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

The New York Times writes that it’s unclear if the department ever followed through with disciplinary actions against the officers involved — despite the fact that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has criticized the police for their noncompliance, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said there should be penalties for those who do not comply.

Overall, according to David A. Harris, a law professor and expert on police issues at the University of Pittsburgh, it’s reasonable to expect police to wear masks during more routine work.

“When the requirement says they don’t have to, period, it is understandable the public is going to ask why,” Harris told AP. “If there’s not a reason they can’t and shouldn’t wear masks, why not wear them?”

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said refusal to wear a mask is a symptom of “low morale.”

It adds another thing to add to their “long checklist of to-dos that are distractive to focusing on the job, which can quickly get serious,” he said.

“You can’t ignore that the culture war is central to this. The government has kicked the stuffing out of police and used the issue as political mechanics.”

He continued: “They have had no concern about the lives of officers, and they are seen as pretending to have concern with the mask issue. … It’s not a real good time to ask police for anything.”

Harris agreed with O’Donnell’s sentiment that the masks can be distracting, especially in high-risk situations where the last thing an officer needs is a face covering that can limit vision, hamper breathing and otherwise distract the officers.

But while he sympathizes, he told AP that following protocols put in place that protect the safety of the public and other officers is part of the job — especially in everyday situations.

“We’re all fed up,” Harris said. “Maybe they are more fed up than others. … Masks are an inconvenience for everyone.”

“This is more than misery loves company,” Harris concluded. “They have signed up for a job that entails public contact. I’m sorry it’s an extra thing, but those are the breaks.”

See also: Law Enforcement Played ’Minimal Role’ in COVID-19 Enforcement’

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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