COVID-19: Greater Police Powers Is Not the Solution

  • National Newswatch

Stay home, or you might end up in jail. Across the country, provincial and local governments are granting increasing powers to police forces, in view of enforcing public health measures of social distancing and self-isolation. While these measures are in place to slow down the spread of COVID-19, relying on police to enforce them is cause for concern.

For the most part, people are respecting the measures urged by public health officials: stay home, keep a two-meters distance from others, do not gather in groups, wash your hands. But what happens when people defy the rules?

Almost unanimously in the provinces and cities, governments suggest that police should get involved. Using various emergency legislation, such as the federal Quarantine Act, provincial public health acts, and local civil protection acts, police forces have been granted increased powers of enforcement, including fines ranging from $750 to $6,000, and the power to arrest, leading to jail time.

Although these new powers have largely been used as general deterrents, there have been cases of enforcement. A Quebec city woman was arrested for contravening a quarantine order. Similarly, a woman in Newfoundland spent two nights in jail after being arrested twice for not self-isolating. A Montreal woman was warned of a $1,546 fine when family members drove by to wish her happy birthday. Human rights groups also report overpolicing in certain areas of the country.

While many see these as reasonable measures given the seriousness of possible harm to the public, using police for enforcement misses a key element: the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with public health concerns. As the ACLU argued in 2008, punitive measures in these circumstances are dangerous for civil liberties, they are ineffective, and are unjustly applied.

First, police forces have other, often contradictory, interests. While some argue that police can be allies to the public health service, the reality is that they lack the tools for meaningful contribution to a public health approach. As seen with interventions with a mental health component, harm reduction services, and homelessness, while police officers are called upon to intervene in these circumstances, on a systemic level, they lack the training and resources to do so adequately.

For example, the Montreal police implemented only a one-day training plan for dealing with the complexities of mental illness. This, despite an overrepresentation of inmates with mental health concerns in prison. Another example is the recent fines given to homeless people in Hamilton. With no resources to properly self-isolate – or to pay these fines – increased police intervention is unlikely to help in reducing the possible public health harms.

Additionally, as advanced by civil rights advocate Julius Grey, these increased powers may lead police officers to “collateral findings”, stumbling on activity deemed criminal when responding to a call about social isolation. The constitutionality of such findings is uncertain, which creates room for abuse. In fact, human rights advocates and groups have already commented on the unconstitutionality of certain measures, especially regarding privacy concerns. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association cautions against the increased carding policies for collecting data on specific communities. Similarly, human rights lawyers, Pearl Eladis and Arij Riahi expose concerns over the aggressive use of facial recognition technology and cybersurveillance, and the imminent use of geolocation.

Second, stigmatization through a call for police intervention and snitch-lines is unlikely to result in healthy behaviour and increase testing. Recent history has shown us that criminalizing a health concern may exasperate public health efforts rather than help. As Alexander McClelland showcases, the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure and the discriminatory application of the law led individuals to forgo testing for fear of stigmatization and criminalization. Drawing on the HIV/AIDS experience, UNAIDS and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network favour a human rights and public health approach rather than criminalization. They notably point to the lack of evidence as to the efficacy of the criminal approach, and to the increased concerns for human rights and civil liberties.

In addition, policing COVID-19 will inevitably lead to discrimination in the application of penal measures. The Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) echoed this sentiment, pointing to preoccupations over police disproportionately approaching young, racialized people. Similarly, the UN issued a statement cautioning against the use of emergency measures for the suppression of human rights, specifically by targeting “particular groups, minorities, or individuals”. In light of serious concerns over racial profiling, we should be wary of police intervention in this public health crisis.

Finally, what impact will this have on our society? A few weeks ago, we saw a global call for cooperation and resilience in fighting the spread of COVID-19. This call was met with songs from balconies, rainbows in windows, and an army of volunteers to help one another. Nowadays, we see disturbing displays of neighbourly resentment and snitch-lines. A growing number of citizens agree with the use of serious police sanctions, such as arrest and criminalization, as a primary conflict resolution. After the crisis is over, will we ever be the same?

This leads us to the million-dollar question: what is the solution? Depending on context, community leaders will be better positioned to intervene in their community. This means education, empowerment, and universal access. Instead of fining people experiencing homelessness, providing them with basic necessities and the resources to self-isolate is in line with a public health approach. Montreal and Toronto for example are leasing hotel rooms and opening outdoor day centres. The Vancouver Coastal Health created an operation manual for providing resources to vulnerable populations amidst this pandemic. And an innovative initiative of using murals to communicate public health messages in the DTES of Vancouver is another solution. The key is to provide communication and resources relevant to the community in question.

In the alternative, using public health officers rather than police forces may address some of the concerns mentioned above. Cities such as Peterborough, Ontario use dedicated lines to reach public health officials rather than the police, and Beaconsfield created a Social Distancing Squad which communicates key messages within the borough. In addition, at the federal level, the Quarantine Act contains a mechanism that gives powers of intervention to public health officials rather than police. If a police intervention of last resort is required, obtaining a warrant is primordial. In a time of crisis, perhaps more so than usual, we must pay attention to marginalized communities and the impact of punitive policies on specific populations. Even without the threat of criminal law, we should all be responsible and considerate of others, regardless of who they are, while prioritising communication, empowerment, community intervention, education, and continued solidarity.