Policing the pandemic will put marginalized communities at risk, advocates say

By Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Advocates are warning that granting police sweeping new powers in response to the COVID-19 crisis could be used to target marginalized communities.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread despite lockdowns and physical distancing measures, officials at all levels of government have deputized law enforcement to put some teeth into public health orders.

Police in jurisdictions across the country have arrested and charged people for allegedly defying self-isolation rules or limits on public gatherings and movement. Penalties for certain violations can be as severe as six-figure fines and imprisonment.

A police advocate says forces are focusing on educating the public about COVID-19 compliance, and officers have been told to only pull out the handcuffs as a “last resort.”

But as some leaders warn people to stay at home or face more severe strictures, activists and academics argue that trying to police the pandemic poses its own public-health risks.

“With any kind of pandemic, what happens is it reveals existing forms of social marginalization,” said sociologist Alexander McClelland, who studies the policing of infectious diseases.

“While the police say that they’re tasked with protecting the public, that’s only a certain public that they’re protecting, and they actually target and marginalize systematically certain communities across Canada.”

The University of Ottawa postdoctoral fellow said police aren’t trained to engage in the complex social issues involved in a pandemic, and often, foster a “climate of fear” that brings prejudices to the fore.

McClelland said people who flout public-health protocols rarely do so with the intention of putting others at risk.

Rather, he said, many break the rules because they don’t understand them, or they have no other choice.

Language barriers and other comprehension issues can make it difficult for some to follow jargon-filled edicts about “social distancing” or “self-isolation,” McClelland said.

Staying home isn’t an option for people who have no place to stay, McClelland said.

Working from home also isn’t possible for people with jobs in essential services or the gig economy, such as grocery store clerks, care workers and food couriers, he said.

Marginalized people are often overrepresented in many of these low-wage roles, said McClelland, forcing them outside where they are more likely to have run-ins with police.

McClelland said some police forces have even enlisted the public’s help in cracking down on COVID-19 violations by setting up “snitch lines” for people to report on their neighbours.

He said treating people like “vectors of disease” can deter people from accessing the health care they need.

“It creates a context of fear and suspicion,” he said. “In order to protect our collective health, we need to be more compassionate.”

Robyn Maynard, a Montreal-based activist and educator, said interactions with law enforcement can have violent or fatal consequences for people of colour at the best of times. She expects those risks will only be exacerbated by the current crisis. 

“For black people historically, the experience with policing has not been about protection or about increasing health,” said Maynard, author of “Policing Black Lives.”

“It’s actually often been quite detrimental to the health and wellbeing of black communities.”

In recent years, Ontario has curtailed the controversial practice of street checks, also known as carding, in light of data suggesting that people of colour were disproportionately stopped by officers and asked to provide identifying information even if no particular offence had occurred.

But earlier this week, the province announced that people being charged with violating state of emergency orders, such as gathering in groups larger than five, will be required to identify themselves to police or bylaw enforcement officers.

Failure to comply will carry a fine of $750 and obstructing an officer from issuing a ticket will carry a $1,000 fine.

Maynard noted that these identification requirements put undocumented migrants in peril if police share that information with the Canadian Border Services Agency.

She also suggested threats to imprison people who violate emergency orders seem “counterproductive” given the high risk of the novel coronavirus spreading behind bars.

“That has the potential to exacerbate already present racial disparities in terms of incarceration,” said Maynard.  

The president of Canadian Police Association, which represents 60,000 personnel across the country, firmly rejects the notion that racial bias plays a role in how officers carry out their duties.

“Public institutions are trying their best to protect the public and keep people safe, including — and arguably focusing more on — vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities,” Tom Stamatakis said.

“I just don’t think that this is the right time for people to be trying to turn back the clock and turn this into some kind of issue.”

Stamatakis said most police forces have been instructed to avoid arrest or laying charges in all but the most serious of cases, and their primary role will be educating the public about how breaking the rules poses broader health risks.

He added that police have long played a role in maintaining public health, often serving as first responders for people experiencing mental-health crises.

“There are many communities that just don’t have the resources there,” he said. “The police have become the service of first and last resort.”

OmiSoore Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in Dalhousie University’s faculty of medicine, said while police are often called to intervene in mental-health crises, their presence often escalates the situation, sometimes resulting in the use of force.

As the pandemic has triggered widespread anxiety and distress among the population, Dryden predicts that a collective mental-health crisis may be on the horizon.

Just as Canada has built up its medical capacity to respond to COVID-19, Dryden said officials need to mount a similar effort to respond to its psychological aftermath, rather than passing the buck to the police.

“This is the perfect time to establish (teams) of social workers, nurse practitioners and therapists that are not attached to the police … and can support community members.”

Despite activists’ objections, a recent poll suggests the vast majority of Canadians support laying down the law against quarantine transgressors.

Ninety-two per cent of respondents said they’d agree if governments authorized police to fine such people as some jurisdictions have begun doing; 82 per cent would agree to police arresting those who disrespect the measures, according to the survey conducted jointly by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies.

But Harsha Walia, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, warned that citizens need to weary of forsaking civil liberties in a time of crisis, because they may not get them back.

“It’s incredibly important that we remain vigilant to what this creep might mean,” Walia said, “Those are very fundamentally guarded rights and freedoms for a reason, and we shouldn’t be willing to give those away.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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