As we anxiously await the reopening of life as we previously knew it, we must be careful to remember equity and avoid disproportionate impact. For many of us, it is a blessing to be able to work remotely. Remote work often means a white-collar position. Not everyone is so lucky; as such, our elected officials must plan accordingly to avoid another outbreak in several months.
Of concern in moving forward is how to keep everyone safe. Masks are encouraged by the CDC; stores will not allow shoppers inside without one, and public transit may do the same. However, if someone has limited means, how do we hold them accountable for not using a face covering? Arrest should not be the default answer. We also must be mindful of essential workers – people working at grocery stores, mass transit (especially as highlighted by the #RideNotDie challenge), postal workers, and other jobs that mandate being close to the general public. Employers should be required to provide masks and gloves for all workers to protect them and the public. For instance in Austria, patrons were handed masks before entering local stores. To me, this is the ultimate in equity – rather than arresting someone, make sure that people can protect themselves and others.
What will policing look like upon re-opening? Many have been troubled by the interaction with Dr. Armen Henderson and an officer of the City of Miami police department. While this incident is being investigated, one of my immediate concerns is that the officer was interacting with Dr. Henderson at close range, without gloves or a mask. This should be standard issue for all departments in this time of crisis, with an internal policy to wear them in public. The same applies to corrections officers. Officers are interacting with the public regularly, and can unknowingly pass the virus to fellow officers, family members, and other people they interact with. Protecting them slows the spread.
We need to be wary of implicit bias. In the past, the assumption when a black/brown person was seen wearing a mask is that criminal activity is in progress. Now, the norm will be to wear masks to protect ourselves from the virus. Many people of color expressed concern of racial profiling, and that officers may be in fear and use violent means. Continuous implicit bias training will help address this issue.
Lastly, we need to reexamine contact with the criminal justice system – police departments should be relying heavily on civil citations and arrest warrants to limit the physical contact with the public, and to prevent more spread within the jail system. As of April 27, there are 159 confirmed cases in one of the three jails in Miami Dade County. This does not account for the people who are in the incubation period or are asymptomatic. COVID19 will continue to be a problem in the jail system due to close quarters, multiple metal surfaces where the virus can thrive for 2-3 days, and limited ability for testing.
With careful planning, we can protect all members of our community – with equity and fairness.
Melba Pearson is a candidate for Miami-Dade State Attorney. She is a former homicide prosecutor, and former Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @MelbaForMiami.