Police watch as tear gas is deployed during demonstrations in Santa Monica, California. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mass arrests of protesters across the country — many held for hours in vans, cells and other enclosed spaces — are heightening the risk of coronavirus spread, according to public health experts and lawsuits filed by civil rights groups.
As tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the arrest and detention of thousands further jeopardizes the health of demonstrators — and that of police officers and the broader community.
The use of tear gas and pepper spray, which provoke coughing, adds to the health risk, as do police crowd control techniques like “kettling” — pushing demonstrators into smaller, contained and tightly packed spaces.
“The police tactics — the kettling, the mass arrests, the use of chemical irritants — those are completely opposed to public health recommendations,” said Malika Fair, director of Public Health Initiatives at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “They’re causing protesters to violate the six-feet recommendation. The chemicals may make them have to remove their masks. This is all very dangerous.”
In New York, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., civil rights groups are filing lawsuits and exploring other legal steps if police don’t take measures to protect detained protesters. In these cities, and many more across the country, demonstrators have been held for hours, packed together in cells with little room to social distance or access to running water, civil rights attorneys said.
Most have ultimately been released with a summons — leading to demands that police refrain from detaining people when they could give a ticket instead.
Medical experts say prolonged exposure in such crowded indoor settings is much riskier than an outdoor march, where open air circulation can disperse the virus and people can try to stay six feet apart — although that distance is often compressed when protests get big.
Even before the protests began, jails and prisons were experiencing some of the worst virus outbreaks in the country.
More than 100 people arrested in New York City were detained for hours with little access to water to wash their hands and no ability to socially distance, according to one suit filed by Legal Aid Society. Late Thursday, a state judge ruled that police could detain people for more than 24 hours without seeing a judge, saying coronavirus made delays unavoidable. The Legal Aid Society said it was disappointed in the ruling but was holding off on an appeal because there has been some progress made in getting people released swiftly.
Detective Denise Moroney, a New York police spokesperson, did not respond to questions about the lawsuit or police behavior, but said in a statement that “NYPD encourages all New Yorkers to follow social distancing etiquette.”
In Cincinnati, hundreds of protesters were arrested last weekend, and those who could not secure a bond were held overnight, the local detention center confirmed to POLITICO. Some protesters were held “no more than 20 at a time” in a room during the booking process, with the rest kept in a courtyard to avoid “crowding the arrestees in small, indoor, confined spaces.”
But legal advocates said the adherence to public health recommendations were inconsistent. The ACLU of Ohio, the National Lawyers Guild, the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office and other groups vowed in an open letter Tuesday to hold the police accountable for allowing arrestees to be “exposed to COVID-19 risk.”
Jacqueline Greene with the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild told POLITICO that many people arrested for curfew violation were packed onto buses for several hours with no ability to socially distance, and later kept in a small outdoor space while temperatures dipped into the 40s.
“Most were there on minor, nonviolent misdemeanor charges,” she said. “They could have cited and released all of these folks and avoided this egregious violation of human rights.”
Scott Kerr, the security captain at the Hamilton County Justice Center, said people who were arrested were not given masks over the weekend, but that the center has gotten additional mask supplies and will be distributing them, including in the staging area before booking.
In Milwaukee, detainees have been taken from one crowded setting to another — buses, vans, staging areas and the district station. Many don’t have masks — or they lost them in scuffles with police, said Larry Dupuis, an ACLU attorney in Wisconsin. “If you don’t have any PPE when you are arrested, they don’t give you any,” he said.
The Milwaukee Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, D.C., police have arrested several hundred people over the last week. The majority of the arrests were for violating the curfew the mayor imposed; a smaller number was charged with burglary, rioting, looting and assault. Police Chief Peter Newsham on Tuesday also confirmed the use of pepper spray, tear gas and sting balls — which the ACLU and health experts say puts protesters at further risk of infection.
“Whether it’s tear gas or pepper spray or another chemical, they all make it difficult to breathe,” ACLU senior attorney Carl Takei said. “They all cause coughing, which can facilitate the spread of Covid-19. And they all can cause long-term respiratory damage that makes people more vulnerable to coronavirus in the future.”
Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the police’s response “unnecessary and inhumane” given the pandemic. He is talking with some of the protesters about possible legal action.
“There’s been no effort to protect people from transmission of the virus,” he said. “They’re being held in congregate settings with large groups of people. Some were even held overnight, and then given a citation and told to come to court October. There is no reason that couldn’t have been done in the first place.”
Police spokesperson Kristen Metzger said that while up to 30 people at a time were transported to the station in a single vehicle, they were then held in a large room with areas designated for social distancing. “MPD provided masks, hand sanitizer and facilities for handwashing,” she said.
Smith and others say that during pandemic people should not be arrested at all for low-level offenses like a curfew violation. Simple citations, they said, would minimize the risk to the protesters, police and the public.
Police responses vary by city. In San Jose, for instance, police were providing masks to detainees even before the protests began. In Los Angeles, police are advised to wear masks when feasible, and while many officers have been handing out extras to protesters, they are not required to, an LAPD spokesperson confirmed.
Several governors and public health officials, including those in New York, Texas and Minnesota, have urged demonstrators to get tested for the coronavirus and self-isolate as needed.
But it’s not just the protesters who are in danger. Police and the National Guard may be at heightened risk as well, said Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Few cops appear to be wearing masks as they confront protesters.
“I have real concern for them, standing next to one another in straight lines, facing angry crowds that were often yelling and screaming, putting our police in jeopardy,” he said.
The medical school association’s Fair, who has worked as an emergency physician in Washington, D.C., for about a decade, is also concerned about the protests, and particularly the arrests, spreading the virus — but those fears don’t outweigh her support for the demonstrators.
“We do expect an increase in Covid-19 cases during and after these demonstrations,” she said. “But there are also health implications in doing nothing to address systemic racism.”