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Early Data Shows Black People Are Being Disproportionally Arrested for Social Distancing Violations

Crowds of mostly white protesters have defied Ohio’s stay-at-home order without arrest, while in several of the state’s biggest jurisdictions, police departments have primarily arrested black people for violating the order.

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Demonstrators wave flags outside of the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, last month during a protest against the state’s stay-at-home order. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images)

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On April 17 in Toledo, Ohio, a 19-year-old black man was arrested for violating the state stay-at-home order. In court filings, police say he took a bus from Detroit to Toledo “without a valid reason.” Six young black men were arrested in Toledo last Saturday while hanging out on a front lawn; police allege they were “seen standing within 6 feet of each other.” In Cincinnati, a black man was charged with violating stay-at-home orders after he was shot in the ankle on April 7; according to a police affidavit, he was talking to a friend in the street when he was shot and was “clearly not engaged in essential activities.”

Ohio’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton, issued the state’s stay-at-home order on March 22, prohibiting people from leaving their home except for essential activities and requiring them to maintain social distancing “at all times.” A violation of the order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine. Since the order, hundreds of people have been charged with violations across Ohio.

The state has also seen some of the most prominent protests against state stay-at-home orders, as large crowds gather on the statehouse steps to flout the directives. But the protesters, most of them white, have not faced arrest. Rather, in three large Ohio jurisdictions ProPublica examined, charges of violating the order appear to have fallen disproportionately on black people.

ProPublica analyzed court records for the city of Toledo and for the counties that include Columbus and Cincinnati, three of the most populous jurisdictions in Ohio. In all of them, ProPublica found, black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.

As states across the country attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders have proven instrumental in the fight against the novel coronavirus; experts credit aggressive restrictions with flattening the curve in the nation’s hotbeds. Many states’ orders carry criminal penalties for violations of the stay-at-home mandates. But as the weather warms up and people spend more time outside, defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates fear that black communities long subjected to overly aggressive policing will face similarly aggressive enforcement of stay-at-home mandates.

In Ohio, ProPublica found, the disparities are already pronounced.

As of Thursday night in Hamilton County, which is 27% black and home to Cincinnati, there were 107 charges for violating the order; 61% of defendants are black. The majority of arrests came from towns surrounding Cincinnati, which is 43% black. Of the 29 people charged by the city’s Police Department, 79% were black, according to data provided to ProPublica by the Hamilton County Public Defender.

In Toledo, where black people make up 27% of the population, 18 of the 23 people charged thus far were black.

Lt. Kellie Lenhardt, a spokeswoman for the Toledo Police Department, said that in enforcing the stay-at-home order, the department’s goal is not to arrest people and that officers are primarily responding to calls from people complaining about violations of the order. She told ProPublica that if the police arrested someone, the officers believed they had probable cause, and that while biased policing would be “wrong,” it would also be wrong to arrest more white people simply “to balance the numbers.”

In Franklin County, which is 23.5% black, 129 people were arrested between the beginning of the stay-at-home order and May 4; 57% of the people arrested were black.

In Cleveland, which is 50% black and is the state’s second-largest city, the Municipal Court’s public records do not include race data. The court and the Cleveland Police Department were unable to readily provide demographic information about arrests to ProPublica, though on Friday, the police said they have issued eight charges so far.

In the three jurisdictions, about half of those charged with violating the order were also charged with other offenses, such as drug possession and disorderly conduct. The rest were charged only with violating the order; among that group, the percentage of defendants who were black was even higher.

Franklin Country is home to Columbus, where enforcement of the stay-at-home order has made national headlines for a very different reason. Columbus is the state capital and Ohio’s largest city with a population of almost 900,000. In recent weeks, groups of mostly white protesters have campaigned against the stay-at-home order on the Statehouse steps and outside the health director’s home. Some protesters have come armed, and images have circulated of crowds of demonstrators huddled close, chanting, many without masks.

No protesters have been arrested for violating the stay-at-home order, a spokesperson for the Columbus mayor’s office told ProPublica. Thomas Hach, an organizer of a group called Free Ohio Now, said in an email that he was not aware of any arrests associated with protests in the entire state. The Columbus Division of Police did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

Ohio legislators are contemplating reducing the criminal penalties for violating the order. On Wednesday, the state House passed legislation that would eliminate the possibility of jail time for stay-at-home violators. A first offense would result in a warning, and further violations would result in a small fine. The bill is pending in the state Senate.

Penalties for violating stay-at-home orders vary across the country. In many states, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, violations can land someone behind bars. In New York state, violations can only result in fines. In Baltimore, police told local media they had only charged two people with violations; police have reportedly relied on a recording played over the loudspeakers of squad cars: “Even if you aren’t showing symptoms, you could still have coronavirus and accidentally spread it to a relative or neighbor. Being home is being safe. We are all in this together.”

Enforcement has often resulted in controversy. In New York City, a viral video showed police pull out a Taser and punch a black man after they approached a group of people who weren’t wearing masks. Police say the man who was punched took a “fighting stance” when ordered to disperse. In Orlando, police arrested a homeless man walking a bicycle because he was not obeying curfew. In Hawaii, charges against a man accused of stealing a car battery, normally a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, were enhanced to a felony, which can result in 10 years in prison, because police and prosecutors said he was in violation of the state order.

The orders are generally broad, and decisions about which violations to treat as acceptable and which ones to penalize have largely been left to local police departments’ discretion.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a legal organization focused on racial justice, said such discretion has opened the door to police abuse, and she said the U.S. Department of Justice or state governments should issue detailed guidelines about when to make arrests. That discretion “is what’s given rise to these rogue practices,” she told ProPublica, “that are putting black communities and communities of color with a target on their backs.”

In jails and prisons around the country, inmates have fallen ill or died from COVID-19 as the virus spreads rapidly through the facilities. Many local governments have released some inmates from jail and ordered police to reduce arrests for minor crimes. But in Hamilton County, some people charged with failing to maintain social distancing have been kept in jail for at least one night, even without any other charges. Recently, two sheriff’s deputies who work in the jail tested positive for COVID-19. “The cops put their hands on them, they cram them in the car, they take them to the [jail], which has 800 to 1400 people, depending on the night,” said Sean Vicente, director of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s misdemeanor division. “It’s often so crowded everyone’s just sitting on the floor.”

Clarke said the enforcement push is sometimes undercutting the public health effort: “Protecting people’s health is in direct conflict with putting people in overcrowded jails and prisons that have been hotbeds for the virus.”

Court records show that the Cincinnati Police Department has adopted some surprising applications of the law.

Six people were charged with violations of the order after they were shot. Only one was charged with another crime as well, but police affidavits state that when they were shot, they were or likely were in violation of the order. One man was shot in the ankle while talking to a friend, according to court filings, and “was clearly not engaged in essential activities.” Another was arrested with the same explanation; police wrote that he had gone to the hospital with a gunshot wound. The Cincinnati Police Department did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

In Springfield Township, a small, mostly white Cincinnati suburb, nine people have been arrested for violating the order thus far. All of them are black.

Springfield Township Police Chief Robert Browder told ProPublica in an email that the department is “an internationally accredited law enforcement organization” and has “strict policies ... to ensure that our zero tolerance policy prohibiting bias-based profiling is adhered to.”

Browder said race had not played a role in his department’s enforcement of the order and that he was “appalled if that is the insinuation.”

Several of the black people arrested in Springfield Township were working for a company that sells books and magazine subscriptions door to door. One of the workers, Carl Brown, 50, said he and five colleagues were working in Springfield Township when two members of the team were arrested while going door to door. Police called the other sales people, and when they arrived at the scene, they too were arrested. Five of them, including Brown, were charged only with violating the stay-at-home order; the sixth sales person had an arrest warrant in another state, according to Browder, and police also charged her for giving them false identification.

Brown said one of the officers had left the group with a warning: They should never come back, and if they do, it’s “going to be worse.”

Browder denied that the officers made such a threat, and he said the police had received calls from residents about the sales people and their tactics and that the sales people had failed to register with the Police Department, as required for door-to-door solicitation.

Other violations in Hamilton County have been more egregious, but even in some of those cases, the law enforcement response has stirred controversy. On April 4, a man who had streamed a party on Facebook Live, saying, “We don’t give a fuck about this coronavirus,” was arrested in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the setting of a 2001 riot after police fatally shot an unarmed black man.

The man who streamed the party, Rashaan Davis, was charged with violating the stay-at-home order and inciting violence, and his bond was set at $350,000.

After Judge Alan Triggs said he would release Davis from jail pretrial because the offense charged was nonviolent, local media reported, prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor and said they would focus on the charge of inciting violence, a felony.

The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office declined to comment on Davis’ case.

In Toledo, there’s been public controversy around perceived differences in the application of the law. On April 21, debate at the Toledo City Council meeting centered around a food truck. Local politicians discussed recent arrests of young black people at house parties, some contrasting them with a large, white crowd standing close together in line outside a BBQ stand, undisturbed by police. Councilmember Gary Johnson told ProPublica he’s asked the police chief to investigate why no one was arrested at a party he’d heard about, where white people were congregating on docks. “I don’t know the circumstances of the arrests,” he said. But “if you feel you need to go into poor neighborhoods and African American neighborhoods, you better be going into white neighborhoods too. … You have to say we’re going to be heavy-handed with the stay-at-home order or we’re going to be light with it. It has to be one or the other.”

Toledo police enforcement has not been confined to partygoers. Armani Thomas, 20, is one of the six young men arrested for not social distancing on a lawn. He told ProPublica he was sitting there with nine friends “doing nothing” when the police pulled up. Two kids ran off, and the police made the rest stay, eventually arresting “all the dudes” and letting the girls go. He was taken to the county jail, where several inmates have tested positive, for booking and released after several hours. The men’s cases are pending.

“When police see black people gathered in public, I think there’s this looming belief that they must be doing something illegal,” RaShya Ghee, a criminal defense attorney and lecturer at the University of Toledo, told ProPublica. “They’re hanging out in a yard — something illegal must have happened. Or, something illegal is about to happen.”

Lenhardt, the police lieutenant, said the six men were arrested after police received 911 calls reporting “a group gathering and flashing guns.” None of the six men were arrested on gun charges. As for the 19-year-old charged for taking the bus without reason, she said police asked him on consecutive days to not loiter at a bus station.

With more than 70,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, government officials have not figured out how to balance the threat of COVID-19 with the harms of over policing, Clarke said. “On the one hand, we want to beat back the pandemic. That’s critical. That’s the end goal,” she told ProPublica. “On the other hand, we’re seeing social distancing being used as a pretext to arrest the very communities that have been hit hardest by the virus.”


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