Mayor wants “reset” in social distancing enforcement
by Benjamin Fang
May 20, 2020 | 1761 views | 0 0 comments | 128 128 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In light of recent data showing racial disparities in arrests for social distancing, as well as multiple viral videos of arrests in communities of color, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday announced a “reset” to the city’s approach.

The police department will now focus its social distancing enforcement on gatherings, which the mayor said presents the “greatest danger to lives” in terms of the spread of COVID-19.

“The bigger the gathering, the more that needs to be done by the NYPD,” de Blasio said, “to make sure that gathering either never gets started to begin with or is quickly broken up.”

Civilian “ambassadors” will focus their energies on education and encouragement for social distancing, as well as distribute free face coverings, the mayor said. Houses of worship, community groups and the NYPD will also be part of that effort.

“We want to make this a positive approach,” he said.

The revised policy was announced after elected officials, advocates and community groups called on de Blasio to change the NYPD’s role in enforcing social distancing rules.

At least three videos surfaced in past weeks of police officers arresting people for violating those rules in black and Latino neighborhoods. In one video, a mother of a young child was taken to the ground and arrested at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center train station.

According to reports, recently released data by the NYPD showed that at least 374 summonses were issued for violating social distancing between March 16 and May 5. Of those who received summonses, 193 were African-American and 111 were Hispanic.

The overwhelming majority of those arrested for breaking social distancing rules were also black or Hispanic, according to reports.

The mayor said on Friday that he wanted to protect the relationship between police and the neighborhoods they serve.

“We do not in any way, shape or form want to slide backwards and undermine that precious bond that’s been growing and improving between police and community,” he said.

De Blasio noted that prior to the announcement, he spoke to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, who gave “very constructive ideas” about the new policy.

Just days before the shift, Adams met virtually with local business improvement districts (BIDs), block associations and crisis management teams to call for education and “reculturing” about social distancing, rather than police enforcement.

Adams said every community group should be given masks to hand out, as well as information on how to prevent the spread of the disease.

“They want to be part of addressing the problem,” he said, “and not allow our communities to go into a conflict period with law enforcement.”

He said the videos that went viral sent a “chilling message” that if city officials did not address the issue, it could create “permanent disruptions” between police and community.

“We have citizens ready, willing and able to get the message out,” Adams said. “Let’s mobilize them to be part of the solution.”

Andre T. Mitchell, founder and executive director of the crisis management group Man Up!, said they have seen an uptick in the amount of encounters with the police in communities of color.

“We are people who are trained and familiar with people in the community,” Mitchell said, “and are ready to engage them.”

Lauren Collins, executive director of the Flatbush Avenue BID, suggested widespread distribution of masks in central locations, such as popular shopping destinations. She also recommended more signage.

“Social distancing is a hard thing to grasp when the virus is invisible,” she said. “Seeing those signs everywhere will help people keep things safe.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said in a statement that he’s “relieved” to see the administration’s new approach.

“More masks and fewer summonses are definitely a positive step,” he said.

Williams added that social distancing efforts need to be driven not by police, but by community leaders and credible messengers.

“As the weather gets warmer, I hope these are facts and policies the mayor and commissioner can acknowledge and support,” he said. “Our city is depending on us all.”
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