Police Tactics Are Putting Protesters at Higher COVID Transmission Risk

Cops are forgoing masks and other PPE, and violating protesters' boundaries by pulling masks down, forcing them into crowded spaces, and more.
June 11, 2020, 5:11pm

When Keith Boykin was arrested and thrown into the back of a police van, his first thought was of Freddie Gray. Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, sustained fatal damage to his spine while being transported in a Baltimore police vehicle in May 2015.

Boykin, a Black journalist and CNN commentator, was accused of blocking traffic while covering a May 30 protest of George Floyd’s death in New York City. He said “the thought never even occurred” to him that he could be targeted by police just for doing his job. “I’ve covered anti-war protests, Occupy Wall Street protests, and Black Lives Matter protests,” Bokyin said. “I got tear-gassed in Ferguson. I've never been arrested at any protest in my entire life.”


Boykin soon realized that overt police violence wasn’t the only threat to his safety. After he was arrested, an officer removed the mask he was wearing to protect himself from COVID-19. She placed it around his chin so she could take his photo, and he was not given the opportunity to put his protective gear back on. Boykin’s hands were zip-tied behind his back. After sharing a van with another unmasked detainee, Boykin was moved to a prisoner transport bus, and the other dozen passengers held in individual cages did not have the option to put personal protective equipment on, either.

At NYPD headquarters, he was placed in a holding cell with 34 other inmates and recalled that the “overwhelming majority did not have masks.” While Boykin was able to put his mask back on after his hands were cut loose, it was impossible to keep six feet of social distance from other detainees. There was no soap or hand sanitizer available, and Boykin said the officers weren’t wearing any form of PPE. Boykin said the NYPD treated the situation “as if there was no pandemic going on.”

If police officers aren’t wearing PPE, they could risk transmitting COVID-19 to members of the general public. There have been dozens of confirmed cases of coronavirus among police precincts in Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and the NYPD has reportedly lost at least 43 of its members to COVID-19, with thousands of officers infected. Numerous reports indicate law enforcement officials across the country are not wearing masks at protests against police brutality after Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis patrolman on May 25, and that routine negligence could expose members of the public.


Activists and experts fear, however, that protesters will be scapegoated for any upticks in transmission that result from the demonstrations. Those who have been present on the ground at protests told VICE that attendees are largely making good-faith attempts to maintain social distancing and protect themselves from COVID-19, but officers are ensuring that effort is all but futile, even as the total number of coronavirus deaths in the United States tops 110,000.

As someone who wears rubber gloves at the grocery store to make sure he doesn’t transmit COVID-19 to his 74-year-old mother, Boykin said he felt “angry” at what he was witnessing. At more than 210,000 recorded infections, New York City has more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any other metropolitan area on earth.

“After I had spent so much time trying to protect myself, the very people who were supposed to be protecting me ended up potentially exposing me to the thing I was trying to avoid,” he said. “What it boils down to is that the police have way too much power. They can keep you locked up in unsafe conditions for hours and hours without consulting with anybody. That is why people were protesting in the first place.”

Where is the PPE?

While Jennvine Wong was passing a police precinct on Monday, she saw a row of law enforcement officials—around six to 10 people in total—standing around without their masks on. Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at Legal Aid Society in New York City, asked them why they weren’t wearing PPE. “We don't have it, and we don’t need it,” an officer told her.

While delivering protective supplies at protests, Wong said she has attempted to give masks to officers in riot gear and experienced the same nonchalance. “Everyone in the crowd had a mask on except for the cops, and they did not take it,” she told VICE. “I didn’t see them take out any of their own at all.”


These stories are ubiquitous among public defenders who have provided legal services and on-the-ground resources to protesters. Janie Williams, a criminal defense attorney with Bronx Defenders, told VICE that she has witnessed activists confront police officers for not wearing masks at demonstrations. “Some of them have laughed,” Williams recalled. “Some of them have deliberately taken off their masks.”

Andy Izenson, president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said they watched an NYPD official “take an ungloved hand and remove a medical mask from one of the people he was arresting before he put them into the van.” None of the other officers were wearing gloves, Izenson said, and they estimated that about “one in three” patrolmen were wearing masks. When officers were wearing PPE, Izenson said it was usually protective gear they brought from home.

“All of that together is negligent to the point of malice,” they told VICE, adding that the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to the NYPD raising these concerns and has “not received a substantive response yet.”

These practices are in direct violation of the NYPD’s own internal guidelines on COVID-19. During a May 22 public safety committee hearing, Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Oleg Chernyavsky said that all NYPD officials are “obligated to wear masks” while interacting with members of the public. But while groups like NYPD Mask Watch compile crowdsourced reports of officers who don’t adhere to coronavirus safety protocols—with over 200 cases thus far—it’s unclear how these standards are being enforced.


When approached for comment on this story, a representative for the NYPD said that “officers are directed to wear masks whenever possible.” The spokesperson did not offer further insight as to whether officers who violated those protocols would face discipline.

The NYPD has addressed the specter of COVID-19 hanging over the department in at least one way. In recent weeks, officers have begun wearing black mourning bands on their badges in support of colleagues who have died from COVID-19, but ironically, these bands have actually made it more difficult to report police misconduct. Wong said the bands, a piece of elastic or velcro fabric that is wrapped around an officer’s badge, are “intentionally or unintentionally covering their badge numbers.”

Although the Cop Accountability Project wrote a letter of complaint to the NYPD about the mourning bands, a representative told Wong’s team that officers were “allowed to mourn as long as it doesn’t cover their badge numbers.” “If that’s really what it's about, if they’re honoring the fallen officers that they have lost to COVID-19, why are they not wearing masks?” Wong asked.

These complex questions have yet to be adequately recognized by governmental authorities who have suggested protesters, not police, would be to blame if demonstrations turn into COVID-19 hotspots. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a Thursday press briefing that “protesters themselves could wind up creating a spike.” These anxieties have been echoed by former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, who urged protesters to get tested for COVID-19.


Vice President Mike Pence, who was tapped in March to lead Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, warned governors on a Monday conference call obtained by The Daily Beast that the protests would cause infection rates to increase. “We respect the right of every American to exercise their First Amendment rights, but we want to encourage them to do so safely,” Pence said.

None of those statements addressed the role police officers might play in spreading coronavirus or recognized that many activist groups are abiding by safety measures. Ashton P. Woods, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, confirmed to VICE that activist groups had been distributing PPE at events for those who hadn’t been able to access protective gear on their own. The New York City-based community health center Callen-Lorde said its staff have also stepped in by volunteering to hand out masks, first aid kits, and sunscreen to protesters.

It could be weeks before there is a clear indication of whether COVID-19 is, indeed, being spread at police brutality demonstrations, as it can take up to 14 days for coronavirus symptoms to appear. But Izenson predicted that critics of the Black Lives Matter movement will likely exploit the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to argue “against the validity” of protesting, which has already begun happening among right-wing commentators.

Izenson said these claims are no different from telling activists they shouldn’t be damaging property or disrupting people’s commutes. “All of these concerns are pretextual,” they said. “It boils down to: ‘Don't protest because I don't think what you're trying to say is legitimate.’ There's no way of demonstrating for racial justice that people who don’t prioritize racial justice will think is the right way.”


“Not a single officer was wearing a mask”

While the NYPD has received the lion’s share of criticism over its handling of COVID-19, these issues are not specific to New York City. Cody Michael, a 32-year-old activist in Chicago, said he has attended four protests and “not a single officer was wearing a mask,” aside from patrolmen outfitted with riot gear who had their face shields pulled down. Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested that officers who refuse to wear PPE in Chicago “have to be disciplined” and admitted it has been a continued problem among officers, but she did not outline what a proposed punishment might entail.

VICE spoke to half a dozen other activists with similar stories of interactions with Chicago law enforcement, some of whom took photographs to document the lack of masks being worn. When contacted about these reports, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department said that “all on-duty personnel are required to wear Department issued surgical masks and gloves.”

“Given the heightened activity that officers have been responding to in the past week, there may be situations in which officers may not have masks and gloves on,” said the representative, adding that “any reported violation of Department policy will be investigated accordingly.”

But Michael said the lack of masks were just one issue with how police handled protests. He also witnessed officers crowding activists together into tight spaces where they were forced to violate social distancing guidelines, a practice commonly referred to as kettling. Although the tactic is often used for crowd control, the situation erupted into violence on May 30 when officers formed a circle around protesters marching through Daley Plaza. A young woman confronted the police about being forced “shoulder to shoulder,” as Michael recalled, and said the officer “began to beat her.”


“My friend right in front of me intervened, started getting beaten up, and got pushed over a city bike left in the street,” he told VICE. “That’s when I jumped in, proceeded to take a few hits, until the cop broke his billy club on me and things deescalated. I'll never forget the rage in that cop’s eyes as he ran toward me with his club raised.”

When asked about the incident, a spokesperson from CPD stated that use of force at protests by police officers at protests “must be objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional to the threat, actions, and level of resistance offered by a subject, under the totality of the circumstances.” Sanctity of life and deescalation are the cornerstones of the Chicago Police Department's use of force policy,” the spokesperson said.

While an unnamed Chicago police officer told Block Club Chicago that patrolmen don’t follow regulations like wearing PPE because it interferes with their ability to perform the functions of their job, legal observers disagreed with that explanation. Izenson said the “health and well-being” of the individuals that police officers interact with “is not a high priority” even in an average situation, noting a recent case in which a client “was released at 3 in the morning from a precinct with his arm still dislocated from his arrest.” The individual had not received medical attention during the eight hours he had spent in a jail cell.


“There's no humanity around arrest, especially with the NYPD,” Williams added. “No one’s trying to treat you humanely. They're not trying to make the cuffs any looser. The taking off of masks and the exposure to others is just part of the inhumanity that comes with caging humans.”

The lack of humanity with which critics said police treat protesters could put them at an elevated risk for contracting COVID-19, according to public health officials. Sarah Henn, chief health officer at the nonprofit health center Whitman-Walker, said studies have shown that wearing masks reduce the transmission and inhalation of respiratory droplets. Research from the Centers for Disease Control found that N95 respirators, the close-fitting facial gear worn by doctors and medical professionals in hospitals, filter up to 95 percent of airborne particles.

“Masks act as source control by catching respiratory droplets that are expelled when you’re breathing, talking, shouting, sneezing, coughing, or the like,” Henn told VICE. “The idea is that I protect you and you protect me by wearing masks.”

Henn added that forcing activists into confined spaces increases risk of COVID-19 infection. Although she said that maintaining six feet of space is “somewhat of an arbitrary distance,” practices like kettling or throwing unmasked protesters together in police vehicles pose a major threat to their health. “If you’re in close proximity with someone who’s infected without a mask for under five minutes, it’s very unlikely you would be infected,” she said. “But if it’s over 15 minutes, that risk increases.”

David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, pointed to the use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters as potentially accelerating the spread of COVID-19. These chemical agents, known as lachrymators, cause irritation to the throat and lungs, leading to coughing, sneezing, and loss of breath. That could pose a problem, Eisenman said, if activists who have been tear gassed are locked in a crowded holding cell for hours on end while they are still coughing and sneezing. Boykin, for instance, spent six hours in detention prior to his release.

The UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters signed onto a statement warning that police practices could potentially contribute to the spread of COVID-19. That concern has been seconded by other public health officials: Over 800 healthcare professionals called upon the New Orleans Police Department, for instance, to stop using tear gas against protesters, calling the practice “irresponsible” and arguing it “could contribute to overwhelming an already overburdened healthcare system.”

“It's very distressing,” Eisenman told VICE. “I have to think that at this point there's been enough coverage about this that they know what they’re doing. It strikes me as similar to handing out blankets with smallpox; it’s a way of trying to decimate the ranks of protesters.”