Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and other congressional leaders are calling on the FBI and Justice Department to address the increased concern about how police across the country are dealing with recommendations from the CDC urging people to wear face coverings when they go outside.
“On April 3, the CDC recommended that individuals 'wear face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.' Less than one week later, African American men began reporting incidents of racial profiling for adhering to the CDC’s guidance,” the senators stated in their letter to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“With the ongoing public health emergency, it is more important than ever for law enforcement to build trust with communities of color. Accordingly, we urge your agencies to immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also urge your agencies to encourage the use of federal guidance to create model recommendations at the state and local level,” they added.
For weeks, Black people across America have expressed worry about how the new guidelines could be used against Black people. Some of the community's fears have already been confirmed with reports of Black people being kicked out of stores for wearing masks and disturbing videos of police attacking Black people for not wearing masks.
do riders know that they might be pulled off a SEPTA bus by 10 cops for not having a mask? pic.twitter.com/NnHXJC02E8
— Philly Transit Riders Union (@phillyTRU) April 10, 2020
The encounters show the difficult situations many Black people face now that local municipalities have passed rules requiring people to wear masks on public transportation and in supermarkets. According to The New York Times, Black people, particularly Black men, fear they will be racially profiled and harassed for wearing face coverings in public.
People have flooded social media with stories about being followed and accosted because they were wearing masks.
I am a black man in America. Entering a shop with a coronavirus face mask might get me killed
I trust the CDC’s guidance. But my fear of being mistaken for an armed robber is greater than my fear of coronavirus, writes Aaron Thomas https://t.co/5enUzwrgGi
— Socialist Voice ???? (@SocialistVoice) April 7, 2020
I get it. The other night I was out getting medicine for my sister-in-law. I was wearing a black mask that wasn’t even homemade and ended up in a car chase. https://t.co/570UyoEsaX
— Manases ???????????? (@JogaManases) April 7, 2020
I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.
— Aaron Thomas (@Aaron_TheThomas) April 4, 2020
The problem is even taking place in other countries. A photo went viral this weekend showing police approaching and stopping a Black London resident for being outside while a white person literally does a cartwheel nearby.
Black Man in London UK being told to leave Clissold Park by 2 police officers while white guy practises handstands nearby crazy… pic.twitter.com/YkCrPqq1A9
— Information Man Show (@clinton06) April 20, 2020
In the lawmakers' letter, Harris and Booker detail a number of incidents that have already occurred, including the situation in Wood River, Illinois, where two Black men in surgical masks recorded themselves being followed by a police officer as they left Walmart.
They also referenced a situation that happened last week involving a Black doctor in Miami, Florida, who was handcuffed while wearing a mask as he prepared for a volunteer shift to test homeless individuals for COVID-19. The video showed him being handcuffed and detained right outside his home.
"The Justice Department should send instructions to state and local law enforcement, consistent with this existing guidance. But recent cases also highlight the need for additional guidance on bias and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic," the letter states.
I’m concerned about recent reports of Black men being targeted by law enforcement based on CDC guidance to wear face masks.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) April 17, 2020
"If communities of color—especially African American communities—feel at risk of disproportionate or selective enforcement, they may avoid seeking help or adopting precautionary measures recommended by the CDC. This, in turn, could have dire public health consequences—especially given that COVID-19 is already infecting and killing African Americans at alarming and disproportionately high rates," the letter adds.
In an email to the Associated Press, Harris said, "During this crisis, it is more important than ever for law enforcement to prioritize building relationships of trust with the communities they serve.”
Police officials have already pushed back on the letter, saying police departments across the country are overworked and have previously received implicit bias training.
“In the circumstances we currently find ourselves in, I find it troubling that anyone is asking the nation’s already overworked officers to take time out of their work for training, based on a few allegations of improper conduct. This seems like political opportunism, at the least opportunistic time for the country,” Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the Associated Press in a phone interview.
The letter was also signed by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Ben Cardin D-Md.