In the past month, New York City has rolled back most of the public health mandates first put in place to control the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, such as social distancing and mask wearing mandates. Now, new research Sandhya Kajeepeta, Emilie Bruzelius, Jessica Ho, and Seth Prins, documents the unintended consequences of using police to enforce these mandates, suggesting that pandemic policing produced and exacerbated racialized health inequities during the pandemic.
Using publicly available data from the NYPD, along with information on city-reported social distancing complaints and neighborhood mobility, we examined spatial patterns in public health policing in the early part of 2020. Results indicated that zip codes with higher percentages of Black residents experienced higher rates of public health related police contact—including COVID-related criminal court summonses and arrests—compared to neighborhoods with fewer Black residents. This relationship persisted even after controlling for zip code 311 social distancing complaints and time spent out of the home measured by cell-phone mobility data, two proxy measures of local non-compliance with social distancing requirements.
In fact, one of the strongest predictors of a neighborhood’s rate of pandemic policing was its historical stop-and-frisk rate. This controversial NYPD policy allowed officers to stop, interrogate and search people solely on the basis “reasonable suspicion.” The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice was eventually ruled unconstitutional after it was shown that of the more than 5 million stops conducted under stop-and-frisk, the overwhelming majority of involved young Black and Latino men. Like stop-and-frisk, the imprecise and discretionary nature of pandemic policing enabled over policing of marginalized communities, this time under the guise of public health protection.
These findings underscore the need to identify alternative strategies for promoting public health goals that do not rely on policing and arrest, even beyond the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using policing as a tool for social service provision or public health promotion in any context risks perpetuating racialized criminalization and exacerbating racialized health inequities.