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A police expert explains why brothers get arrested for not social distancing

Officers are using the same tactics that have long led to resentment in black communities

We’ve added another harsh statistic to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on African American communities. Unlike the coronavirus, the contours of this one are old and familiar.

In mid-March, in an effort to halt the pandemic’s spread, officials around the country began ordering people to stay at home and to practice social distancing while wearing facial coverings or masks in public. In some locales, the police have been called on to enforce these measures.

In short order, reports began to surface of black people being aggressively confronted by officers, ordered to leave stores or violently arrested. In New York City, which has the nation’s highest concentration of coronavirus cases, these reports contrasted with images of the police handing out masks to white people who violated social distancing policies.

The New York Police Department released statistics showing that of the 374 people cited for social distance violations through the first week in May, typically at social gatherings, more than 80% were black or Hispanic.

The disparity isn’t simply police versus black people, said Lorenzo Boyd, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven and a former officer with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts. “Let’s take a step back and look at the negative relationship between the police and communities of color,” he said.

Boyd talked with The Undefeated about the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has opened a new front in the long-standing problems between police and black communities and the changes in police training that are needed to meet the moment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Police departments are now being tasked with enforcing social distancing rules. Does this represent a fundamental shift in their duties?

Let’s first acknowledge that we train police officers to be ‘law enforcers’ — and I’m making air quotes — which is problematic, because statistically, only about 20% of a police officer’s day is actually enforcing criminal laws. The vast majority of their time is service or administrative. Police are more guardians, if we calculate what they do. So the social distancing stuff should be more aligned with what the police are supposed to be doing. But for far too long, we’ve let the police sink into this false narrative of, ‘We catch the bad guys, and our lives are in danger every day.’ And then we talk about the war on police. While there are some bad guys out there gunning for the police, more police officers die by suicide than by homicide. So we don’t actually talk about the war on police being an internal war.

“The problem is that the police do two things really well: They use force, and they detain. So to ask the police to do all these other things, that’s not what they’re trained to do,” said Lorenzo Boyd, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

Dr. Lorenzo Boyd

What’s problematic is the narrative that we allow the police to take because it’s sexy and it’s cool and it’s this machismo and bravado. America becomes this damsel in distress, and American policing is the thing that saves us. But that’s factually incorrect.

What’s the national history of policing when it comes to race? How does that history inform the policing of COVID-19?

I don’t want to say that it’s the police always against black people, because that’s not true. Clearly there are white people that have been arrested, and clearly there are black people that have been given masks and just told to social distance. So it’s not like the police are jumping out of their cars, finding black people and body-slamming them to the ground and arresting them because they’re standing too close. That’s not the narrative. But unfortunately, that does happen and that’s also caught on tape.

But the other thing is, if you think back to middle school or high school, and there was a bully that just intimidated you for years. Then you fast-forward, you get out of school and you run into them on the street, and they ask you to do a favor for them, you’re not likely to, because you still get that visceral reaction.

With black America, a negative relationship with policing goes back to slave patrols, and Jim Crow laws and the civil rights struggle. Then the crack epidemic hits the inner cities and the police are overpolicing black and brown communities. All of a sudden now they’re saying, ‘We’re doing something for your good,’ and we’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, OK’?

When we talk about social distancing policing, particularly in New York, it’s a new face on zero tolerance policing. Zero tolerance policing comes from the model that if you handle the small issues in the community, you can avoid the major issues. The problem is that the police do two things really well: They use force, and they detain. So to ask the police to do all these other things, that’s not what they’re trained to do. When you introduce the police into a situation, then typically the result is going to be an arrest or a use of force, or both.

You give me a whole bunch of handcuffs, and a whole bunch of bullets, and a whole bunch of things to use force. What you don’t give me is a whole lot of skill sets to de-escalate. You go through four hours of de-escalation training, but you go through 80 hours of handgun training.

What did you think when you heard officers were being used to enforce social distancing rules?

The way policing currently works, I thought it was going to be a huge problem. It could be done right if community policing were the true mandate of policing. When we talk about modern policing, particularly in what’s supposed to be a free and democratic society, it involves the balance between invoking police powers, using coercion and people’s constitutional rights. We have to manage the three of those, and this becomes a delicate balance. Far too often, police start with invoking police power.

The police do two things: They convince you not to do something that you were planning to do, or they convince you to do something that you didn’t want to do. Policing is about social control. And how you approach me determines how much I’m willing to be controlled. In my state, a lot of the grocery stores have one-way aisles, and if I walk the wrong way down an aisle because I wasn’t paying attention, and somebody goes, ‘Excuse me, sir, I think you may be going the wrong way,’ and I go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!,’ then I’ll turn around and go the other way. And if I walk down and somebody swears at me and says, ‘You can’t follow directions’? My response is very different.

What are police officers telling you about how their jobs have changed over the past few months. How are they framing their new duties?

“So a lot of the arrests aren’t for social distancing. It’s for a whole lot of other things: It’s for levels of disrespect, it’s for verbal assault. It’s not like the police are getting out and saying, ‘social distance!’ and people refuse, then you snatch them up and body-slam them.” — Lorenzo Boyd

I read an article a couple of days ago from a police captain in Omaha, Nebraska, calling social distancing policing ‘B.S.,’ and saying that’s not why his guys got into policing. But the way it’s supposed to happen, it’s supposed to be community policing. I’ve spent the last 20 years training and retraining police on what community policing is supposed to be in fragile communities. When I do training with police officers, I say to them, ‘Think of a community that has high rates of crime, or high call service, or high unemployment, or high drug use, or low education.’ I say, ‘Give me a word. What would you call that community?’ I’d hear things like ‘ghetto,’ or ‘bad neighborhood,’ or ‘hot spot.’

Then I ask, ‘How many people ever went out to dinner and you sit at that table that’s really wobbly?’ When everybody raises their hand, I say, ‘You get a wobbly table at a restaurant, do you guys collectively pick up the table and take it out back and throw it in the garbage and demand a new table?’ No, not at all. What do you do? You stick something under the leg to support the table, or to shore up the table, right? Because your table is fragile. What if we did that to communities that are fragile? Instead of throwing them away and calling them bad neighborhoods, why don’t we add levels of support? So then we can reframe how we view the people that live in these communities, because the vast majority of these people are good people.

What do police departments say about this new spate of images being added to the police video canon?

I talk to 25 to 30 chiefs and officers a month. Yesterday, I talked to three of them. The thing that I noticed is, initially, most officers backed off and they weren’t doing a lot of enforcement. The videos that I’ve seen, they only show the worst. I reach out to departments from time to time to ask what they’re doing, and a lot of the officers are afraid because they don’t want to be exposed [to the virus], so they’re not trying to jump in and do a lot of hand-to-hand stuff. So a lot of them are just talking to people, and a lot of officers are saying if they don’t want to social distance, that’s on them.

When we do see disparate treatment around social distancing enforcement, what is the main driver of that? What do police departments say about all the videos where they seem to be going off on black people?

They say something like, ‘If the person were to comply, I wouldn’t have to use all this force.’ Or, ‘If they didn’t mouth off to me, I wouldn’t have to take them down. Why don’t black communities just comply?’ To me, that’s like asking, ‘Why is it that a battered woman stays?’ As opposed to asking, ‘Why does that man batter?’ So let’s do the paradigm shift. If you roll up on me and you call me an a–hole, or you call me an MF, what type of compliance are you going to get from me?

So a lot of the arrests aren’t for social distancing. It’s for a whole lot of other things: It’s for levels of disrespect, it’s for verbal assault. It’s not like the police are getting out and saying, ‘social distance!’ and people refuse, then you snatch them up and body-slam them. It’s not happening like that. It’s mostly, ‘I need you guys to social distance, I need you guys to move. If you don’t move, this and that.’ And then people saying, ‘You can’t make me move. It’s a free country, and you’re a racist and why are you only doing this to black people?’ So then it’s the back-and-forth, and then it escalates.

When you go into these communities, particularly in your tactical gear, and you’ve got your Batman utility belt with all these things to harm me, and then you put out your hand and say, ‘Hey, you can trust me.’ I’ve been burned way too many times and my default is not to trust you.

This is coming from a guy who spent 15 years doing the job and the last 20 years researching and training the police. The bulk of the people that we were arresting were people that look like me, they were from my neighborhood and I knew their families. But I also saw in other communities, we were giving people multiple breaks and not arresting them. And that’s the same with this social distancing thing.

What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen in terms of how coronavirus policing is handled with black and brown people and how it has been handled with white people?

What is a bigger threat to society? The six young black men playing basketball in the city park? Or 100 white men with assault weapons marching on the [Michigan] state capitol? Clearly it’s the people with the long guns. But over and over and over, we see the police standing there, and the guys with the assault weapons are screaming in their faces, not wearing face coverings, threatening them, waving flags, they have all these guns. It’s clearly intimidation. We don’t see them being arrested.

How would you like to see police handle social distancing issues?

I think the thing to do would be to retrain the police on what enforcement is. There’s some things that should not be enforced. If people are not social distancing in the park, you can cite them, and that should be the most you should do. You don’t arrest people for running stop signs. You don’t arrest people for jaywalking. Why is anyone arresting people for not social distancing? It should be enough to tell people, ‘You need to social distance,’ and if they say no, then you say either, ‘I’m going to cite you’ or, ‘You do so at your own peril.’ And then walk away.

Again, police have authority and they think their authority is incontestable, that no matter what I say, you have to do exactly what I say. But it’s the balance between invoking police powers and people’s constitutional rights. So if you do arrest somebody for social distancing, you really better have some real, chargeable offense. Because if not, then a magistrate is going to throw it out, and it’s just a waste of everybody’s time.

A lot of cops aren’t thinking, ‘How is this going to play out in social media?’ Or, ‘How does this help or harm race relations?’ People aren’t thinking that because right now, you’re not doing what I’m telling you, you’re making me look bad in front of everybody else, you’re throwing shame on me. Good officers can reconcile their moral code with their coercive power. And they only use coercion when they need it. The primary skill of a good officer is handling problems while avoiding using force through skillful, effective and creative communication. You should be able to talk people out of a situation, and there has to be a walkaway point.

You have to weigh the pros and cons of this action. If you walk away, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? As you’re getting in your car, they’re calling you a punk. And I always ask police officers, ‘Is that what this is about? Your feelings are hurt?’ So if we can get beyond that, and understand that good officers can weigh that with their moral compass and realize it’s not worth it. Our job is to tell people what they’re supposed to do, but folks make their own actions. There’s not enough police officers to patrol every single community, every single cul-de-sac. So if you’ve got 20 people from the neighborhood sitting in somebody’s driveway, are the police going to roll up and start arresting the people because they’re all sitting on the same bench? Probably not. So why then are we doing that in public spaces where black and brown people are?

What are good examples of social distance policing?

I just had a meeting with the police chief of Yale University, a brother named Ronnell Higgins, and he’s got 94 sworn officers. He told his officers that criminal enforcement is taking a back seat right now to service and social distancing. He says every officer has got a bunch of individually wrapped masks in their vehicle. I tell them when you see people not social distancing, walk up to them, explain to them the policy from the governor. You hand them a mask, ask them to social distance and walk away.

I asked him what happens if they refuse. He says, ‘We gave them masks, we asked them to social distance. I’m not going to arrest people for standing too close to each other. I’m not going to have my people measuring how far people are standing apart.’ He says, ‘My job is to service my community, not to arrest my community.’

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.