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Reduce Policing to Slow the Spread of COVID-19: Medical Professionals, Healthcare Advocates, and Elected Officials Demand Action from Mayor de Blasio and NYPD

In a candid letter today, 200 medical providers and public health advocates urged Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD to reduce policing as part of the city’s effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

They warned that police officers may be spreading the lethal disease in unnecessary interactions with New Yorkers in public spaces. 

Nurses for Social JusticeCommunities United for Police Reform (CPR) and elected officials, including New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, also echoed this call for less policing as a way to protect public health during the current pandemic.

Medical and health experts note that the rate of infection among NYPD officers is more than seven times that of New York City as a whole. They emphasize that low-level interactions between officers and the public are not worth the risk of increased infections. 

Despite recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum to curtail all non-essential police activities during a pandemic, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and Mayor Bill de Blasio have not committed to any changes in low-level policing during the current public health crisis. 

As a nurse in New York City, I am alarmed that the very officers who are sworn to serve and protect us are likely spreading COVID-19 through unnecessary low-level interactions with the public. They are in a terrible position that puts them, their colleagues, their families and the public at great risk" said Jennifer Grossman, RN, BSN, LNC, Executive Director of Nurses for Social Justice. "I am proud to join hundreds of medical providers calling on our leaders to prioritize the health and safety of all New Yorkers by taking the need for social distancing seriously and halting all low-level interactions between the NYPD and the public."

“As doctors, we take an oath to do no harm. During this public health crisis, we are calling on the NYPD to do the same. Doing no harm in the current pandemic means ceasing all unnecessary, low-level policing and ceasing the flow of people onto Rikers Island,” said Dr. Kamini Doobay, a New York City Emergency Medicine Resident Physician. “As medical providers, we are working long shifts in crisis conditions, often putting our own health at risk. We implore all sectors of society, including law enforcement, to do everything they can to flatten the curve.” 

The letter states:

As medical workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, including doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, and technicians, and organizations representing medical workers, we write to share our concerns with the way the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is policing during the current public health crisis. Specifically, we are alarmed at the high rate of infection among NYPD officers and fear that unnecessary interactions between the NYPD and the public will further exacerbate the public health crisis unfolding in New York City and rapidly spreading across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to emphasize the importance of social distancing to reduce transmissions. Further, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a leading  police research and policy organization, recommends “identifying core department functions” and appropriately curtailing non-essential police activities such as “crime prevention programs, parking enforcement, and enforcement of certain misdemeanor laws” during pandemic situations. We urge the NYPD to heed the CDC and PERF’s advice to socially distance and curtail all non-essential contacts between NYPD officers and the public at this time.

We are especially concerned to hear that the NYPD is taking a business-as-usual approach to policing low-level offenses at this time. For each interaction the NYPD has with the public, there is a risk of virus transmission, and we urge the NYPD to take this public health risk seriously. There is no question for us as medical providers that the risk of virus transmission is a far greater threat to the public health and safety of New Yorkers than non-violent offenses at this time.

Unnecessary contact between the NYPD and the public at this time is even more concerning when taking the alarming rate of infection of the NYPD into account. Currently, the NYPD infection rate is 121 infections per 1,000 NYPD officers, more than seven times that of New York City as a whole.  Because of the high infection rate, it is likely that many more NYPD officers have been exposed to the virus without their knowledge. Each interaction between NYPD officers and members of the public puts both groups at risk of transmitting the virus and further spreading in the community, in NYPD precincts across the city, and in the homes of NYPD officers and the people with whom they are in contact. 

The letter requests that Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Shea make the following changes to policing policy during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

(1)  Halt the enforcement of low-level and ‘quality of life’ offenses to reduce unnecessary interactions between the NYPD and the public. This includes stops, tickets, and arrests for low-level and 'quality of life' offenses, as well as sweeps targeting homeless New Yorkers.

(2)  Cease unnecessary arrests by issuing summonses or appearance tickets for all other qualifying offenses, and stop the flow of people onto Rikers Island.

(3)  Encourage social distancing through public service announcements and community education, not enforcement that leads to unnecessary police contacts and risks further transmission of the coronavirus.

Below are statements from New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other elected officials supporting the call from health professionals for a reduction in policing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"Over-policing and harsh enforcement are not what our city needs in order to implement social distancing policies – in reality, aggressive low level enforcement will only exacerbate the rapid spread of COVID-19 within the criminal justice system, and debilitating fines will only expand the disparity. Rather, we need community partners to share information with a clear message on these policies within neighborhoods, and we need the administration to release racial data on any enforcement that is already taking place.  Social distancing and mask mandates are about public health and public safety – but public safety does not equate with over-policing,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

“NYPD shouldn't focus energies on low-level offenses, as it only turns a minor infraction into a major risk. As numbers of coronavirus diagnoses increase within the department with more than 1,400 officers testing positive for COVID-19, unnecessary interactions between the NYPD and the public will only further exacerbate our safety and health,” said New York City Council Member Donovan Richards, Chair of NYC Council Public Safety Committee.

“Unnecessary interactions between the NYPD and civilians is putting individuals at risk of contracting COVID 19 and undermining our city’s efforts to stop the disease’s spread. I echo Communities United for Police Reform in their demand for the NYPD to heed the CDC’s advice to socially distance and end non-essential interactions with the public,” said New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. 

"We can't police our way out of a pandemic. Medical professionals in our city's jails and hospitals have been sounding the alarm for weeks about the dangerous conditions for viral spread of this disease, and we've already seen the rate of infection skyrocket at Rikers Island among incarcerated people without sufficient cleaning supplies and inadequate medical care. New York City and New York State have a responsibility to continue to shrink the jail population by halting arrests for low-level offenses and releasing people who are most vulnerable to illness. If we fail to do so, the increased death toll will be on our hands, and no amount of soap will wash it away,” said New York City Council Member Brad Lander. 

"In this crisis, we need public policy decisions to be informed by what doctors and scientists are telling us. For the safety of citizens and police officers, I’m proud to join with Communities United for Police Reform and others to call on the NYPD to reduce unnecessary interactions with the public by ending unnecessary arrests for low-level offenses. These interactions needlessly jeopardize public health and disproportionately impact communities of color, who are already overrepresented in COVID-19 fatalities,” said New York City Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.

“During a public health crisis, it's vital to listen to science, reason, and medical expertise. As a legislator, I’m using public health guidance as my North Star during this crisis — and the NYPD should do so as well. Adhering to best practices for social distancing, on the recommendation of 200 medical professionals, will save the lives of NYPD officers and New Yorkers who interact with law enforcement,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman. 

“We are calling on Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Shea to take the urgent action that the COVID-19 public health crisis demands. In order to protect our communities and people within the criminal legal system, the NYPD should be directed to cease unnecessary arrests and instead enforce necessary policies through public announcements and guidance,” said New York State Senator Julia Salazar.

“As the Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on New York City, an unnecessary encounter with law enforcement or a trivial arrest could literally be a death sentence. Mayor de Blasio & the NYPD should suspend Local Law 240.35 which effectively makes it illegal to wear a mask, suspend enforcement of low-level offenses, stop the flow of people going to Rikers Island and promote safety and social distancing.  All we want to do is Survive!,” said New York State Assembly Member Mike Blake.   

“As a state representative who actively advocates for criminal justice in Albany, it is now more imperative than ever before that we do our part in protecting frontline healthcare workers during this most trying time in our state's history. Adhering to this notion requires that we do everything in our power to minimize unnecessary interaction between our law enforcement and the public when it isn't necessary or imperative to maintain law and order. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directives, as it relates to social distancing to reduce transmission, explicitly extends to non-essential police activities. Activities, when minimized during a viral pandemic, can effectively lower the rate of infection among law enforcement and medical workers. It's crucial that we all do our part to act in accordance with the CDC's directives if we want the necessary desired results in minimizing the number of infections throughout our city and state,” said New York State Assembly Walter Mosley.


About Communities United for Police Reform

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York, and to build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and reduces reliance on policing. CPR runs coalitions of over 200 local, statewide and national organizations, bringing together a movement of community members, lawyers, researchers and activists to work for change. The partners in this campaign come from all 5 boroughs, from all walks of life and represent many of those most unfairly targeted by the NYPD.

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