Biased COVID-19 Enforcement

April 20, 2020

Just two short weeks ago, the NAACP San Diego Branch published an article (see urging residents to obey the public health orders, but also urging law enforcement to use common sense when enforcing these orders, so as not to endanger lives unnecessarily.

On Saturday, April 18th, a “Freedom Rally” was held in downtown San Diego, where according to press accounts some 200 people, “many … wearing Trump 2020 hats” and “most not wearing masks or practicing social distancing” gathered to protest the measures that are keeping our sick and elderly from dying.  As much as we deplored the foolishness of these protestors, we might have appreciated the good sense of the San Diego Police Department. We might have assumed none of these protestors were cited or arrested because the SDPD recognized that aggressive enforcement of the COVID-19 measures would necessitate the very sort of close contact that could make matters worse, not better.

We might have thought that.  Sadly, we are left to wonder; did the SDPD forbear out of good sense, or out of sympathy with the protestors?  Was it the protestor’s allegiance to the science-phobic, authoritarian, low-IQ individual occupying the White House that made the SDPD keep their distance?  Or perhaps was it the officers’ gut feeling that white folks don’t need to be arrested?

Why would we say such a thing?  Why would we doubt the good sense of the San Diego Police Department?

Just two days before, I myself went to Christopher Wilson Memorial Park, adjacent to the Southeastern Police Station.  Now, I understand that the parks are closed, and that mass gatherings are not to occur. I noted the tape around the playground equipment and seating areas.  And yet…

My father, a retired Navy Master Chief, is elderly and is at very high risk for COVID-19.  He also has dementia, and it is impossible to explain to him why he needs to stay inside. We usually walk in the neighborhood, but we have been having trouble getting others to maintain social distancing, and I chose to go to the park to keep my father safe.  He was wearing his mask, and we were practicing social distancing from everyone not living in our home. We hoped to do three quick laps around the deserted park and get home.

Imagine our surprise when a dark, unmarked van jumped the curb and proceeded to drive straight at my father, who was walking ten feet ahead of me, stopping just five feet away from him.  The driver, accompanied by another officer, ordered my father to come to him.

Of course we all know how this story may have ended.  Law enforcement in San Diego has a poor track record in dealing with men of color who may not fully understand or immediately comply with instructions (and often with those who do both.)  Thankfully, I was there to explain the situation, and we avoided arrest or worse.

I am left, however, wondering just what it was that made those officers feel that jumping a curb and driving up on a lone pedestrian was a sensible way to enforce a public health measure.  COVID-19 aside, possible mistaken use of deadly force aside, there is the fact that a two-ton vehicle was driven close to a frail pedestrian.

Was their need to enforce their will on a black man really that strong?  There was no need to charge their vans into the “Freedom Rally” two days later, so we have to wonder.

This is the very sort of unthinking law enforcement overreach we warned about weeks ago, with a side order of racial bias.

For shame, Chief Nisleit.  Train your people better than this!

Francine Maxwell, President
NAACP San Diego Branch