Desiree Rios / The New York Times

Policing in New York City show racial disparities with arrest records during quarantine.

May 10, 2020

Professors Explain Racial Disparities in Social Distancing Arrests

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Striking racial disparities are emerging in arrests and police responses to social distancing violations, according to numbers recently released by New York City officials.

While data is currently sparse, preliminary numbers reveal that black and brown communities may be disproportionately affected by the New York City Police Department’s social distancing enforcement.

Arrest statistics from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office show that, of the 40 people arrested for violating social distancing regulations, 35 were black, four were Hispanic and one was white.

Meanwhile, a further breakdown of the NYPD’s city-wide social distancing arrest numbers shows that of the 120 arrests made between March 16 and May 5, 68 percent were black, 24 percent were Hispanic and 7 percent were white.

Prof. Joe Margulies, law, government, attributes these disparities partly to the “greater opportunity for interaction with police” experienced by black and brown people during the pandemic, as they are more likely to be outside their homes due to the nature of their jobs.

There is “great overlap” between members of those communities and those who are designated as essential workers or are otherwise unable to work from home, according to Margulies.

Additionally, orders to wear masks in public bring additional burdens for black Americans — many of whom may shy away from wearing masks or other face coverings to avoid being criminalized and profiled by law enforcement — said University of California, Berkeley Prof. Erin Kerrison to Futurity, a nonprofit site that publishes research news.

For Prof. Jamila Michener, government, the arrest data’s revelations are hardly surprising.

“Inequality in policing during a pandemic follows from the inequalities that existed beforehand,” Michener said, referring to what she said has been a heightened police presence in communities of color.

These disparities have led critics to compare current policing practices to New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy.

Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, explained that parallels are drawn between pandemic policing and stop-and-frisk because it is often unclear whether officers approach a certain person because of a perceived social distancing violation or because of another factor, such as race.

However, Margulies strongly denounced the stop-and-frisk comparison as being “really irresponsible.”

“Stop-and-frisk stops hundreds of thousands of people every year, and we don’t have anything like that [right now],” Margulies said.

Margulies also cautioned that the limited data currently available makes it difficult to “make stronger statements” regarding “disparate policing” during the pandemic, but acknowledged that broader trends in disparities may be revealed in time.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-N.Y.) spoke out against the stop-and-frisk comparison at a news conference on May 7, citing the systematic nature of stop-and-frisk and maintaining that the recent arrests were appropriate measures for “addressing a pandemic.”

After The New York Times reported the Brooklyn arrest numbers, de Blasio clarified that, although he believes arrests are necessary for “saving lives” during the pandemic, the racial disparity must be addressed.

In conjunction with racial disparities in arrests, what critics say are significant differences in police reactions to social distancing violations are unfolding across the country.

For instance, Michener noted that while white Americans have been “protesting stay-at-home orders, sometimes armed to the hilt,” black and brown Americans are being “punished more severely for less dangerous infractions.”

In Toledo six black men were arrested for gathering on a lawn, while white anti-lockdown protestors demonstrating in large crowds across Ohio have faced no arrests.

“The problem isn’t the pandemic, the problem is the way that police power is — and has long been — unequally wielded against people of color,” said Michener.

Despite these entrenched disparities, Margulies sees reason to hope that potential changes in pandemic-era policing may yield positive reform for the criminal justice system.

“Why policing ought to change is because you can’t be casually running people through detention centers,” he said, pointing to the risk of bringing people into custody for minor issues at a time when jails and prisons are especially vulnerable to outbreaks.

Margulies hopes that if changes are enacted to decrease the vast number of arrests that take place “as a matter of default,” stakeholders will “recognize that all these arrests … were never necessary.”

Margulies also emphasized the availability of alternative enforcement mechanisms.

“If you don’t absolutely need to put somebody in jail, if you can use a summons instead, or a citation or fine, why on earth are you putting them in jail?” Margulies said.