Back to All Commentary

These measures guard against overpolicing during pandemic

Donna Lieberman

New York is reopening after months of COVID shutdowns and amid a national reckoning with racism and injustice.

With reports of new spikes in infection, one thing is clear: We cannot police our way out of the pandemic.

We already know what happens when officers are put on the front lines of COVID prevention. Efforts to enforce mask-wearing mandates via police resulted in disproportionate enforcement against people of color and more police violence.

Three bills that guard against overpolicing in the time of COVID have been awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s approval for months. It’s time to sign them into law.

In July, lawmakers passed a bill that will prohibit the sharing of contact tracing information with law enforcement or immigration authorities.

With restaurants, businesses and schools reopening, contact tracing is critical. But it can work only if New Yorkers are confident that the very personal information they are being asked to provide — their health status and the names of the people with whom they’ve come in contact — will not be used to hurt them or their loved ones.

Understandably, mistrust of both police and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency runs deep, especially among communities of color and immigrant New Yorkers disproportionately hit by the virus. If people fear that contact tracing will get them — or a loved one — arrested or deported, they won’t participate and this essential public health program won’t work.

Experience shows that testing and tracing work to contain infectious diseases, including COVID. But some schools are instead turning to invasive and dubious surveillance technologies to combat the virus.

These technologies — many of which track and collect students’ location and other sensitive information — could become another tool for police to investigate and criminalize children. Because many of these systems can trace our every move, they have the potential to turn a minor breach of school discipline into a criminal prosecution.

The legislature sent Cuomo a bill this summer that would keep biometric surveillance technology, like facial recognition, out of schools until it can be carefully and properly studied. He should sign it without delay.

As deleterious as their influence has been on stopping COVID, police departments are not the only law enforcement agencies that pose a health risk. As courthouses across the state reopen, it is reasonable to fear that ICE agents will resume their practice of lurking in and around courthouses to roundup immigrants who need to go there to defend their rights.

ICE’s weaponization of courthouses means survivors of domestic violence — which has gone up during the pandemic — may be afraid to seek legal protection against their attackers, people may be scared to defend themselves against wrongful eviction, and witnesses may be too intimidated to testify.

Worse still, ICE arrests at courthouses put New Yorkers into immigration jails, which are fertile grounds for COVID outbreaks that can be fatal and can quickly spread to the broader community.

Cuomo can put a stop to this by signing the Protect Our Courts Act, which will make it illegal for ICE to arrest someone in or near state courthouses.

The governor has led a highly effective, science-based state response to the pandemic. And as New York and the nation engage in a much needed and long-overdue racial reckoning, the governor has publicly acknowledged the need to address our legacy of systemic racism in law enforcement.

In keeping with these important efforts — and for the sake of justice and the health and well-being of all New Yorkers — the governor must rein in law enforcement’s role in the pandemic response and sign these three bills into law today.

This piece was originally published in Albany Times Union

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union