Social distancing rules seem to apply differently to people of color

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Law enforcement’s long history of racial profiling now seems to have extended to social distancing rules, too. On Sunday, New York City public advocate Jumaane D. Williams tweeted photos showing throngs of mostly white New Yorkers freely lounging in a park — and what looked like police applying harsh force against Black and brown New Yorkers, the New York Times reports. And given the police’s shady track record of disproportionately targeting Black and brown communities, these disparities in the enforcement of social distancing most likely exist not only in New York, but all over the country.

Williams’s tweet included a screen grab of video footage recorded Saturday of what police said started as an effort to enforce social distancing, per the Times. In the video, Officer Francis X. Garcia pointed a stun gun at East Village passersby. He then pushed the man in question — who ended up being charged with assaulting a police officer— to the ground, hitting and punching him. While the Internal Affairs Bureau conducts an investigation, Officer Garcia has been placed on modified duty, according to New York City Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea.

“The behavior I saw in that video is simply not acceptable,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Sunday night, the Times reports. Yet it emerges in the wake of the mayor breaking up mourners at a Hasidic funeral in Brooklyn, and later calling out “the Jewish community, and all communities” on Twitter. Is NYPD unequally enforcing social distancing?

De Blasio gave an oblique response when asked about the issue on Sunday. “What we see in some places is a large number of people in a small area and our job is to make sure they practice social distancing,” he said, per the Times.

According to Commissioner Shea, NYPD issued only 70 summonses for social distancing violations this past weekend, the Times reports. He noted that the police’s encounters “went well” but foresees “a lot of adjustments” moving forward in efforts to keep folks apart.

Chances are, the apparent racial disparities in the policing of social distancing rules in New York City are far from an anomaly. Law enforcement has a documented pattern of disproportionately targeting Black and brown people — it’s not a stretch to predict that this would hold for social distancing, too. One study of 100 million traffic stops by 21 state patrol agencies from 2011 to 2017 found that police had a lower bar for stopping and searching Black and Latinx drivers than they did for stopping white drivers, NBC News reports. And although police searched white drivers less frequently, they had a higher likelihood of having illegal items on them.

Research also shows that not only are police more likely to target Black and brown community members, they’re also more likely to use force against them. Although Black Americans accounted for only 13% of the US population in 2012, they comprised 31% of people killed by police, according to a Vox investigation. Meanwhile, Mapping Police Violence found that Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.

Given these statistics, the stark contrast in the photos Williams tweeted isn’t surprising. It’s a reflection of a broader problem of police enforcing the law differently in Black and brown communities, one that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into harsh relief.