My dog demands that I walk him around the nearby neighborhood at least three times a day — once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. And so, we had a front row seat as my neighborhood went dormant when California enacted stay-at-home orders just over three weeks ago.
Then, all of a sudden, the police cars started making an appearance.
I observed three police cars, in a straight line, speed down an otherwise desolate street. I spotted another police car, idling in a more residential section of my neighborhood. I noticed yet another loitering in the derelict parking lot across the street from my apartment building.
Indeed, many police departments have ramped up their patrols to break up large gatherings and enforce new social-distancing rules. On my way in from a recent walk, my neighbor complained to me about his exercise class being swarmed by police. He was attending a group exercise session in a nearby park — which I disapprove of, by the way — when a squadron of cops showed up and began ticketing people for participating in a large gathering. He managed to sneak away scot-free, but he told me that at least one of his exercise partners was handed a $68 violation.
Like many people, I was bewildered by all of this new police activity. I knew we were supposed to be sheltering in place and that large gatherings were prone to being prematurely ended by law enforcement, but everything I heard about citations being handed out had thus far seemed to be gossip and online hearsay. In late March, for example, a tweet went viral after claiming that the LAPD was establishing checkpoints to ensure drivers were participating strictly in essential activities. The tweet claimed they were doling out $400 tickets to anyone driving around aimlessly.
However, both reporters and the LAPD replied to the tweet, insisting that nothing of the sort was happening (or at least, nobody was admitting to it). The woman behind the tweet clarified that it was actually the Santa Monica PD who were handing out citations, and yes, the Santa Monica PD, like many departments, is authorized to hand out citations — $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and upwards from there — to anyone not following these new orders by gathering. Any money collected would purportedly go back to the state.
But both the Santa Monica PD and the LAPD have been contending that their officers were told not to participate in giving out such citations. “We are not issuing citations for the State and County Stay/Safer at Home orders,” Constance Farrell of the Santa Monica PD recently told the Associated Press. “We have a local order that includes standard language that gives law enforcement broad authority, but given the current situation, people have a right to get exercise, go to essential jobs and perform necessary errands. Our compliance efforts are focused on enforcing specific violations of the State and County orders, such as businesses that should be closed.”
In several other states, there have also been reports of fake cops pulling over and warning drivers of coronavirus-related travel violations, which would obviously confuse citizens.
I emailed Drake Madison of the LAPD to ask more about these alleged citations, and he replied, “The orders of social distancing and stay-at-home, in and of itself, won’t be a basis for detention. LAPD will be following the guidelines issued by the mayor’s office with regards to social distancing/stay-at-home. In those rare instances when we contact someone not following the guidelines, officers will speak with those individuals and educate them on the guidelines established by the mayor. In those events where officers are unable to gain voluntary compliance, a supervisor will be requested to assist. Under extreme circumstances where voluntary compliance can’t be obtained, an ‘Application for Complaint’ will be completed and forwarded to the City Attorney’s Office for filing. An ‘Application for Complaint’ is a report of the incident.”
What happens once that application has been filed is unclear, but I was able to dig up a recent Riverside County mandate, which declares, “Violation of or failure to comply with this order is a crime punishable by fine, imprisonment or both. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation per day, injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees and costs.”
The mandate notes that all public and private gatherings, defined as “any event or convening that brings together people in a single room or single space at the same time, including but not limited to, an auditorium, stadium, arena, theater, church, casino, conference room, meeting hall, cafeteria, drive-in theater, parking lot or any other indoor or outdoor space used for any non-essential purpose,” are strictly prohibited.
The mandate continues, “All persons, including essential workers, shall wear face coverings, such as scarves (dense fabric, without holes), bandanas, neck gaiter or other fabric face coverings.”
In which case, technically speaking, it seems that I could be ticketed in Riverside County, my county, for gathering in public and not wearing a mask (i.e., walking my dog). And while many police departments claim to be dishing out warnings only, people around the nation have indeed been getting cited. In Manhattan Beach, California, 129 social-distancing violations were doled out in a single weekend. In New Jersey, 10 people participating in an engagement party were charged for gathering and child endangerment, as children were in attendance.
Nonetheless, instances like these seem to be rare. In fact, like most of us, many police officers would rather not deal with people who are putting themselves at high risk for being infected by the coronavirus. “Think about a group of officers that are having to engage someone who is showing symptoms, or has already been confirmed to have the virus — we could lose half a shift in one fell swoop,” Pasadena Police Lieutenant Pete Hettema recently told Los Angeles Daily News. “People don’t understand that oftentimes they want police to solve every problem, but we’re actually adding to the problem ourselves.” (To that end, more than 1,000 New York Police Department officers have been infected.)
Moreover, enforcing new, broad laws has been confusing for them, too. “There are never going to be enough county or city workers to quote unquote enforce this,” admitted L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, while announcing the Safer at Home rule in March. “This is on 10 million people to self-enforce.”
Many state and local orders are built with wiggle room that allows police to exercise discretion, and when dealing with a completely new set of rules, exercising discretion can be, well, complicated. In Maryland, participating in large gatherings can land you a $5,000 fine, and people have been being cited. In Texas, visitors from heavily-infected states could earn 180 days in jail if they refuse to quarantine. In Hawaii, violators of the state’s stay-at-home order can be handed fines of up to $5,000 and a whole year in jail.
Not to mention, while attempting to enact these patchwork laws, some cops and public officials have exercised discretion in (sadly unsurprisingly) not-so-great ways. One Louisiana Police chief used the siren heard in the horror film The Purge to signal the 9 p.m. curfew that his city put into effect. Earlier this week, an Illinois mayor asked his police department to give out citations and perform arrests during public gatherings, and they subsequently found his wife hanging out at a bar. And just the other day, two black men were kicked out of a Walmart by a police officer for the apparent crime of wearing masks — you know, like everyone has been told to do.
In England, meanwhile, one police chief just asserted that his force is only “a few days away” from checking freaking shopping bags to ensure people are only purchasing essentials, adding that government guidance has been “really ambiguous,” leaving police to make their own, sometimes haphazard decisions on such matters.
In most cases, you can avoid any trouble by simply staying inside. But as can often be the case with social justice, if you do break any of these new rules, which are already incredibly confusing and constantly changing, how you get treated is largely in the hands of the officer you deal with. All of which means, I’m considering ordering some coffee to hand out to all the new cop cars in my neighborhood, just to be on the safe side.