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Unmasked police are a public health hazard

If the Winnipeg Police Service is concerned about maintaining its legitimacy, it will mandate all officers to wear face masks

COVID-19Human Rights

Screenshots from a video recorded of Winnipeg Police Patrol Sergeant Kevin Smith, showing him issuing a ticket at close distance without a face mask despite provincial public health orders.

In early December 2020, a video went viral of Winnipeg Police Patrol Sergeant Kevin Smith issuing a “revenge ticket” to an unmasked passenger during a routine traffic stop. Smith was not wearing a mask when he issued the citation, and remained within six feet of the passengers in the vehicle during the stop.

The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) since said it has “dealt with” the officer concerning the viral incident.

While details of the consequences Smith faced have not been released to the public, WPS Chief Danny Smyth said the possible penalties “could range from an admonishment to losing several days of pay.”

CBC Manitoba reported that Smith has a long and documented history of abusive behaviour, whose pattern is again reflected in his brazen disregard for public health orders as it appears in the latest video. Yet, at the time of writing, Smith is still an active member of the WPS.

Virtually no action has been taken to correct this violation of health and safety protocols by the police. No new public health orders explicitly mandating officers to wear masks at all times while on duty were issued. There has been no public disclosure of how (or if) Smith has even been disciplined.

With the province’s dismal vaccine distribution outlook, it is clear that the coronavirus will continue to threaten the health of Manitobans for the foreseeable future. In other words, we won’t be ditching masks anytime soon.

Despite Manitoba’s code red public health orders presenting evidence that facial masks reduce the spread of the virus, WPS officials have not ordered officers to wear masks while on duty at all times. The WPS press release issued on December 8 after the video of officer Smith surfaced states:

Winnipeg police officers are expected to wear face masks during interactions with members of the public unless social distancing is being practiced. Pursuant to the current Provincial Health orders, employees are expected to wear masks within indoor facilities accessible to the public or in private residences, where possible.

In response to the video footage of Smith, WPS Chief Danny Smyth said, “I expect our officers to wear a mask when dealing with the public in close proximity so I make no excuses for that.”

He also stated, “I think it would be appropriate for any traffic stop that the officers would be wearing their protective equipment because you can’t deal with a driver from six feet away.”

Officials cushioned their reprimands for Smith’s behaviour with language that makes mask use seem highly recommended, but ultimately discretionary. Councillor Markus Chambers, chairperson of the Winnipeg Police Board, said “the message out there is for officers to wear masks unless it impedes with [sic] their ability to do their job or safety.”

These statements allow enough flexibility for officers to justify not wearing masks, and the vagueness of when officers are required to wear them appears purposeful so harmful behaviour can be excused.

Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (WPCH), a community-based police abolitionist group, has documented a “rising number of first-hand accounts of interactions with unmasked WPS officers during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Many Winnipeggers have witnessed police officers patrolling outside or pulling someone over for a traffic ticket without wearing a mask since code red restrictions came into effect.

WPCH shared a video on Twitter reading testimonies of interactions with unmasked Winnipeg police officers. Officers were reported not wearing masks while entering private residences, making arrests and completing traffic stops, excusing their disregard for public health and safety with claims that masks impede their work.

These excuses are not acceptable for health care workers, who must wear masks at all times, despite facing similar risks of potentially dealing with volatile individuals and performing delicate tasks.

Healthcare workers demand cops mask up

Kelly* is a health care worker at a Winnipeg-based not-for-profit organization that provides care and shelter to people experiencing homelessness. Her job comes with the risk of interacting with potentially violent or volatile individuals. She is required to wear a mask and eye protection while working at all times.

“Wearing a mask does not impede my ability to properly do my job. If anything, I feel much safer wearing my mask every day and will probably be inclined to do so even post-COVID,” said Kelly. On top of mitigating COVID-19 transmission, wearing a mask can protect Kelly against other illnesses, like tuberculosis, that are often brought into her workplace.

“Police officers and cadets are among the few agencies allowed to bring someone into protective care. For them to bring someone into our building we require them to wear a mask. No one refuses because they understand it’s part of their job to abide by our rules. From what I’ve observed, it does not interfere with them doing their job properly while in our facility,” said Kelly.

Officers are clearly able to comply with mask-wearing requirements when rules are clear and they are in a position where they would be penalized otherwise.

Hayley* is a registered nurse at the Health Sciences Centre who works with COVID patients on multiple units, emergency and intensive care. She said masks are required at all times in her workplace, unless eating and distanced in the break room. She also said wearing a mask does not impede her ability to do her job effectively.

Hayley believes police officers should wear masks at all times while on duty.

“It’s literally the least amount of effort you could put in to keep people safe, which is the thing that you’re supposed to be doing,” she said.

“There’s no situation in which [police officers] shouldn’t wear masks. Even outside, like the city patrol people, like West End patrol are wearing masks, and you can’t wear a mask? They’re here trying to protect people too, and they’re getting paid God knows how much less than you.”

According to Bianca*, a registered nurse in Winnipeg, police officers “should have a mask on at all times, even if they’re just with their partner that’s still someone outside of their house.

“Also, if [officers] don’t have a mask on and they see something, a crime or someone in distress for example… are you really gonna wanna take the time to be like, ‘Shit, where’s my mask?’ and delay whatever you were about to do? Just keep it on.”

The power dynamic between civilians and police officers is what makes the case for mandatory mask wearing for on-duty officers so urgent.

In the video of Sergeant Smith, the person in the car calmly requesting the officer put on a mask led to the officer abusing his power and administering a fine. In situations where officers make a sudden arrest or physically intervene with a person in some way, the civilians involved have no power to remove themselves from the police officers who are unmasked. Police officers have the monopoly on state violence and civilians are expected to listen to their orders, no matter how unsafe they feel.

University of Winnipeg criminology professor Kevin Walby has studied police institutions, communications, security and surveillance for years. He says maskless officers are undermining their own alleged mission.

Walby noted that unmasked officers interacting at close range with the public create a host of public health and safety issues.

“These are personnel who are supposed to be, at least they tell us, out there to create public safety, and here they are endangering public health, perhaps conveying the virus when they encounter people,” he said.

“When they tell us they’re here to promote community health safety, then they show up unmasked going into people’s homes, putting their hands on people when they’re unmasked, it’s really contradictory.”

It is clearly a lose-lose situation for police officers to not wear masks—they are simultaneously putting themselves and the public at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 while visibly undermining their own legitimacy as a source of civil protection.

So why are officers flouting public health orders? Why aren’t they wearing masks?

While part of it is the unwillingness by both governments and police boards to explicitly mandate officers to wear masks while on duty at all times, without any caveats, this is part of a greater issue—a culture within policing that emboldens officers to feel like they’re above the law.

“There’s this concept in criminology, ‘police culture,’ where public police often try to set themselves apart and distinguish themselves in terms of profession and they do this through forms of machismo and secrecy,” said Walby.

“It seems like in Winnipeg and elsewhere there’s this kind of environment where police feel like they can get away with whatever they want. There’s very little oversight, there’s very little repercussions if they break the law or even if they kill someone. There’s little recourse for any public body.”

Rebecca Hume, a freelance researcher and community organizer for WPCH, said officers are using being unmasked “as an intimidation tactic,” as evidenced in the testimonials and in the behaviour exhibited by Smith.

“The issue of unmasked police officers highlights a bigger, fundamental issue of the police as a risk to public safety,” Hume said. “This is not an issue that will be resolved by simply mandating masks for the WPS, though we support this and continue to question why WPS officers are not currently being held to the same public health standards as every other citizen of this province.”

Zero consequences for the Winnipeg Police Service

In December 2020, Winnipeg City Council voted to further increase the WPS budget after video evidence of Smith and multiple accounts of unmasked officers had surfaced.

More recently, the Independent Investigations Unit decided not to charge the WPS officer who shot and killed Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl.

“It is clear why cops feel they are above the law. They can murder people and defy world health guidelines and still get a $8.5 million pat on the back from our city council,” said Hume.

The oppressive structure of policing has also led to the well-documented vulnerability of people of colour to police violence. People of colour are also more vulnerable to COVID-19. Infection rates are skyrocketing in Indigenous communities in Canada. Researchers have found that the risk of contracting the virus is substantially higher for ethnic minorities.

The risk of exposure to COVID-19 for people of colour is compounded by their already increased risk of interacting with police officers, who may not be wearing masks.

Rather than publicize how Smith was “dealt with” after his documented incident or implement tighter regulations mandating police officers to wear masks, Smyth used this incident as an opportunity to request more funding for the police to invest in body cameras.

People experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg have resorted to seeking refuge in bus shelters. he increasing funds that the city allocates to the WPS could be redistributed to housing, addictions services, and life-sustaining community services that could help people who are most at risk of being policed. This would reduce the spread of COVID-19 far more than putting more cops on the streets.

According to Hume, “real public safety requires redirecting funds from the bloated police budget to life-sustaining community services. Wellness checks, for example, do not require the services of an armed and unmasked police officer.”

In an opinion piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, Smyth said abolition activists and academics served only “to undermine the social contract between the community and the police.”

Questioning police officers—or what Smyth describes as disrespecting police officers—does not undermine the social contract, but police officers acting as a vector for an extremely contagious, potentially deadly virus certainly does.

Experts also disagree with Smyth’s statement.

“You would think that even according to their own rhetoric they would want to set the best possible professional example and abide by public health orders,” said Walby. “If they want people to respect the rule of law, then they should show respect for the law. When they don’t, it brings their institution into disrepute. It brings the idea of the rule of law into disrepute.”

Unmasked police officers are a public health hazard. If the WPS is concerned about maintaining their own legitimacy, they will mandate all officers to wear a mask while on duty at all times. If the government really cares about public health, they will ensure everyone, without exception, is respecting public health orders.

Names used in this article are pseudonyms designed to maintain anonymity and preserve individuals’ privacy.

Emelia Fournier is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg. She holds a BA in Global Political Economy from the University of Manitoba. Follow her on Twitter @emeliaaaa__.

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