California State Senator Kamala D. Harris, along with five other senators, sent a letter requesting that law enforcement be trained not to profile or stop minorities for wearing masks in public to Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray. Harris, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and others requested that the guidance be passed on to local and state police departments by The Justice Department.
The letter referenced 2014 guidance from the US Department of Justice that stated “biased practices […] are unfair, promote mistrust of law enforcement, and perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes. Moreover—and vitally important—biased practices are ineffective.”
However, Harris and Booker’s statement to Barr and Wray claims that further anti-bias guidance is needed during the pandemic.
According to the April 17 letter by Harris and Booker, less than a week after the CDC recommended the use of face masks in public spaces on April 3, Black men began reporting instances of harassment by police. The County of Los Angeles released similar guidance April 10.
The letter details recent instances in the country of Black men being followed or detained by police officers because they were wearing face coverings to help guard against the spread of coronavirus.
“In Miami, Florida, an African-American doctor wore a mask as he prepared for a volunteer shift to test homeless individuals for COVID-19,” the letter reads, “he was subsequently handcuffed and detained outside his home. The Miami Police Department is investigating the incident.”
The letter warns that the fear of police harassment caused by such incidents may cause African Americans to be reluctant to wear masks in public. This is especially concerning due to the fact that African Americans are catching and being hospitalized for coronavirus at disproportionate rates in many parts of the country, including Long Beach.
“In Wood River, Illinois, for instance, two African American men in surgical masks recorded themselves being followed by a police officer as they left Walmart,” Harris and Booker’s letter states, “The police officer reportedly asked for their identification and erroneously told them the city’s ordinance prohibited wearing masks in public. Wood River Police are now investigating the incident internally, with the assistance of the local NAACP.”
Wearing a face covering in public places may lessen the amount of droplets released by an infected person when they talk, cough and sneeze, thereby potentially reducing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. A person can be positive for coronavirus without knowing or showing any symptoms.
The Long Beach branch of the NAACP has been trying to increase the amount of masks worn by people of color in Long Beach, and distributed masks to 100 Black Men of Long Beach, the National Council of Negro Women, senior centers and more. However, face coverings are not a replacement for social distancing and frequent handwashing.
On the other hand, the letter also referred to incidents between police and African Americans who declined to wear masks, including a video showing a man being dragged off public transportation by four police officers in Pennsylvania the day after masks were made mandatory for passengers.
“With the ongoing public health emergency,” the letter states, “it is more important than ever for law enforcement to build trust with communities of color. Accordingly, we urge your agencies to immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.”