How Far Should Police Go in Enforcing Coronavirus Lockdowns?

SYDNEY, Australia — With much of the globe under stay-at-home orders, police officers are becoming the enforcers of a new coronavirus code that demands what humans naturally resist: complete isolation and obedience.

Empowered by tough new laws and public pressure, police forces are testing how far to go in punishing behavior that is ordinarily routine. In Australia, the authorities have threatened people sitting alone drinking coffee with six months in jail. In Britain, the police came under fire for using a drone to film and shame a couple walking their dog on a secluded path.

But in other countries, enforcement has been much more aggressive and escalated into serious violence. In Kenya, officers are under investigation in multiple cases, including the death of a teenager shot while standing on a balcony during a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The police also used tear gas and batons on passengers at a ferry terminal and are being investigated in at least two other deaths, leading President Uhuru Kenyatta to say he regretted the violence.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday ordered the police and the military to shoot anyone who “causes commotion,” after 20 protesters were arrested as they demanded food during the country’s lockdown.

There is a long history of aggressive policing during pandemics and other crises, with officers guarding the sick, enforcing travel restrictions and issuing citations for spitting. What’s different now is that orders to stay home are more widespread, forcing countries, states, cities and towns to grapple with how policing should work when it’s not entirely clear what activities are prohibited, or why one might be riskier than another.

Defining law and order gets more complicated when people need to keep going outside to work — just to eat. Or, in less dire cases, when a few twentysomethings sitting in the grass might be harmless, or might be reckless spreaders of contagion. Or when the public is anxious and stir-crazy, and there can never be enough police to catch every perpetrator.

“People are writing a new playbook daily on how to deal with this thing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based organization of law enforcement officials and analysts worldwide. “The key question is: How can the police serve in a reassuring role?”

Police officers in many hot spots seem to be acting cautiously. From San Francisco and New York to Bangkok and Milan, more and more people are complying with rules for social distancing. Traditional crime is down, and those who carry badges are learning to think like doctors in masks — focused on the health of the public and themselves.

It’s been a brutal learning curve. More than 1,400 officers in New York City have tested positive for the virus. Several police chiefs, in Detroit and elsewhere, have also gotten sick, leading departments worldwide to change how officers interact with their colleagues and the public.

In London, commanding officers now work on alternate days, to reduce the chance that the virus will sideline the upper ranks. In Northern Ireland, spit and bite guards are being introduced so suspects won’t get saliva on arresting officers.

Patrol hours have also been extended, in jurisdictions big and small, to minimize interaction at stations, and more conversations with the public are taking place from squad cars.

A lot of the interactions focus on guiding people home. In California, where the outbreak appears to be reaching a plateau after two weeks of lockdown, officers have rarely gone beyond verbal or written warnings, said Michael Rustigan, a professor of criminal justice at San Jose State University.

In parts of Florida and Canada, police officials have explicitly promised leniency.

“It’s only in the worst-case scenario we’re going to do anything,” Sgt. Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association, said last week, after lawmakers in that Canadian city passed a law allowing for fines of $1,000 to $500,000 for failing to comply with public health orders. “We don’t want to stress out the citizens any more than we have to.”

But in some places, severe crackdowns suggest that the pandemic is magnifying policing problems that had already existed.

More than two dozen gay men and transgender women were arrested on Tuesday in Uganda for flouting rules on social distancing. Campaigners accuse the police of targeting a group that has been demonized in the country for years.

In Kenya, where the authorities are often accused of heavy-handed tactics, police officers fired tear gas, beat commuters and made some lie face down on the ground at a ferry terminal in the coastal city of Mombasa, hours before an overnight curfew began on March 27. Images and videos from the chaos showed passengers coughing, spitting and touching their faces to unblock their mouths and noses.

In a low-income neighborhood east of Nairobi, a 13-year-old boy was shot on Monday night, apparently by the police, as he stood on the balcony of his family’s apartment. He died Tuesday morning. The police said he had been struck by a stray bullet.

Countries with more autocratic governments have been quicker to use antagonistic tactics.

Videos from India have shown police officers in masks using batons to beat and disperse large groups of people. Last month, the Dubai police arrested a European man who posted videos on Instagram showing himself at a beach that had been closed.

And in the Philippines, where Mr. Duterte had unleashed the police and military to wage a bloody drug war long before the virus came, security forces are now being tasked with maintaining locked-down order by any means necessary.

After the protesters were arrested in Manila for demanding food, Mr. Duterte warned that security forces would kill or jail all “troublemakers.”

“Do not test me. Do not try to test it,” Mr. Duterte said Wednesday night in an address to the country. “We are ready for you.”

China, where the virus appeared first, may have set the tone for strict measures. A lockdown that brought the country to a halt for weeks was enforced at every bureaucratic level, from top government officials to the police to neighborhood committees, and was aided by widespread surveillance and the suppression of dissenting voices.

But even in some of the world’s most liberal democracies, there are signs of a rush to sirens and action.

In Israel, 900 people were fined for going more than 100 meters from their homes. In England, besides cracking down on people walking dogs, the police have told small local stores not to sell chocolate Easter eggs because they are not essential items.

Australia is following a similar path. In Sydney, where new lockdown rules threatening large fines and jail terms went into effect this week, the police stopped a man washing windshields alone at an intersection on Tuesday. A day later, they drove patrol cars through a grassy park to move on anyone who seemed to be doing what the police commissioner had declared illegal at a news conference: “sunbaking.”

“We accept that the government has to do something, but there should be limitations on what I see as really broad powers,” said Shahleena Musk, the acting legal director for the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne. “There should be clarity about these powers and a wide public education campaign to make sure people understand what their obligations are and why they are there.”

Public health experts argue that the best way to get people to comply is not with crackdowns and shame, but rather by appealing to their own self-interest and sense of camaraderie.

“You want to use carrots instead of sticks,” said James Colgrove, a public health professor at Columbia University. “People want to do what’s best for themselves, and the way you get them to do what’s best is to tell them why they should do it and explain it to them. Nobody likes to be threatened.”

Damien Cave reported from Sydney and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting from Manila and Stephen Castle from London.

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