Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, August 11, 2020 --
America's police are refusing to enforce laws to stem the pandemic. Municipal budgets should be redirected to those who will.
When a crowd of 300 young partygoers gathered for a block party 2½ miles from the U.S. Capitol building, neighbors were not amused. Dense crowds blocked traffic and people raced down streets on dirt bikes and ATVs. Calls to police began around 9 p.m. Saturday, with complaints about noise, the dirt bikes on city streets, and a lack of mask wearing and social distancing.1
Yet despite the fact that gatherings of more than 50 were illegal, and that a city mandate to wear face masks in public was widely ignored, police allowed it to continue. The party probably would have continued until dawn -- except for the shooting that started just after midnight. Multiple shooters fired dozens of shots in the crowd, killing a teenage boy and wounding 21 others including a city policeman.2 Days later, police have failed to make any arrests.
The head of Washington DC's police union blamed the city council for "demonizing" police during Black Lives Matter protests, implying the police's failure to take action against young black people attending the party was related to the movement's goal of stopping police harassment of and violence against African Americans Mayor Muriel Bowser also defended the police department's failure to enforce laws banning gatherings of 50 or more people and to requiring wearing masks in public. She said the kinds of people willing to shoot into a crowd are unlikely to obey social distancing and mask wearing regulations.3
This utter unwillingness of police and politicians to enforce laws designed to save lives, is staggering. Since July 22, Washington, DC has a law on the books mandating wearing a mask in public under penalty of a $1,000 fine,4 but there is no evidence any individuals have been ticketed. From the southeastern DC neighborhood where the party and shootings happened, you can see the U.S. Capitol in the distance. This is where Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has repeatedly testified about the importance of limiting crowds, social distancing and mask wearing to control the global pandemic. Yet America's police are utterly unwilling to enforce laws designed to enforce good behavior, and worse yet, cavalier enough to let a rowdy party degrade into a shooting spree.
Some say such enforcement is not the job of the police. Nonsense. Back in 1918, the last time America faced a pandemic as severe as that today, police did exactly this kind of enforcement. In New York city, a law against coughing without covering your mouth was enforced under threat of a year in jail or a $500 fine4 (over $8,000 in today's dollars) In the fall of that year, two Nebraskans were jailed in Colorado trying to drive around a quarantine blockade.5
Yet 2020 is not like 1918. People are far less likely today to comply with laws meant to control the pandemic, and the police are part of the problem. When police do nothing to enforce laws on the books, they send a clear signal that the laws are not to be taken seriously. The fact that the mayor of the nation's capital should accept open defiance city law because certain people aren't willing to abide by it is utterly ridiculous.
The pushback against mask enforcement by police departments is a national phenomenon. Departments across the country, in Texas, Michigan, Ohio, California and elsewhere have publicly announced they have no intention of enforcing the law. But this bad behavior by the police is not universal. The Nashville Police issued 20 citations and one arrest on Friday in a crackdown on non-compliance in the Broadway entertainment district.(8) They showed that, even today, police can do the job if they are willing.
In the majority of places where the police are unwilling, cities have alternatives. In Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach in the Lost Angeles area, governments have hired contract enforcement officers.7 The contractors, akin to old-fashioned meter maids, do not carry guns and cannot make arrests, but can issue tickets.
Police departments who don't want to be bothered by mask enforcement might applaud these moves. But they should be careful what they wish for. Municipal budgets start with a fixed pie. For every law enforcement function that is taken away, it will be ever harder to justify the large budgets the police demand. So long as they refuse to enforce the law, nobody should feel sorry for them for facing budget cutbacks.
Related Web Columns:
Sunk by the Flunkies, June 30, 2020
3. Fox 5, Ibid.
4. NBC 4, DC Now Requires Face Masks When Leaving Home, With Few Exceptions, July 22, 2020
5. Barry, John M., The Great Influenza, The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, 2004, p340
6 Ibid., p345