WASHINGTON – In Florida, the Miami-Dade Police Department has cited hundreds of businesses and individuals for not following face mask rules, with the county collecting nearly $300,000 in fines.
Many other cities have taken a more lax approach.
In Austin, Texas, fines can be as high as $2,000 per day for individuals, although the police department rarely levies them. Educating the public, not punishing them, is the focus, the agency said.
As the COVID-19 death toll nears 200,000, face mask mandates have spread across the country, with more than 30 governors issuing statewide orders and city or county ordinances filling in where governors haven’t in some states, such as Florida, Arizona and Tennessee.
But how these rules are enforced varies across localities.
At a time of intense scrutiny on law enforcement amid nationwide protests against police brutality and calls to defund the police, many department leaders believe that punishing people for not wearing masks – which have come to symbolize the pandemic’s political divide – would only put officers at the center of yet another fraught controversy.
“With all the national issues right now with law enforcement … do we really need police officers handing out tickets for people not wearing a face mask? … Do we really want police officers enforcing health issues?” said Steve Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Buffalo Grove Police Department in Illinois.
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Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, agreed, citing an incident in Philadelphia in April in which police officers were captured on video dragging a man off a bus after he refused to wear a face mask. The incident became a national story and placed law enforcement in yet another unflattering spotlight.
“The last thing any law enforcement leader wants is to have an officer involved in a confrontation that started with someone not wearing a mask,” said Johnson, former deputy commissioner for the Baltimore Police Department.
Lindsay Wiley, who teaches public health law at American University, said it’s “improper” to rely on police to enforce public health requirements.
“It could be counterproductive and could create a situation where there’s an escalation of the conflict,” she said. “When public health officials rely on policing, I think that’s problematic.”