Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I have been working from home for the last nine months and have spent more time in the Chicago neighborhood where I have lived for 17 years. It is a neighborhood where a significant number of active and retired members of the Chicago Police Department also live.
The same three marked police cars are usually parked in neighboring blocks. On routine traffic stops at a nearby busy intersection, I have often seen police officers not wearing masks as they approached drivers and pedestrians.
Numerous reports of uniformed CPD members not wearing masks in public offices and other public spaces, both on and off duty have emerged, including at DePaul University, where I am on faculty. Photos and videos of officers assigned to protests earlier this year showed officers just as likely to wear masks as not.
Recently, a federal judge admonished the Chicago Federation of Police for its lack of compliance with social distancing and wearing masks in a courtroom. The CPD launched its own “I Wear My Mask” campaign recently to encourage officers to comply with masks.
As the number of deaths from COVID in this country hit an all-time high of more than 3,000 in one day, closer to home, the Illinois Department of Public Health lists the number of COVID cases and deaths by Zip code.
My neighborhood is among the hardest hit by COVID, precisely because many neighbors are essential workers, like police officers. Four CPD officers have died from COVID-19, and more than 1,560 have tested positive for the virus.
Like medical personnel, police officers are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. As a second surge of the virus hits nationally and locally, it is critical to keep COVID under control, even as vaccines are beginning to come to market.
While the Centers For Disease Control advise everyone to wear a mask, and several police departments across the country require masks in most situations, compliance and enforcement are points of contention.
As a social work educator for nearly 30 years, I focus on the transactions and inter-relationships between people and systems, whether those systems are educational, carceral, familial, or medical. The work is to help people maximize their potential while keeping social systems fair and responsive to diverse human needs.
As individuals with social connections and responsibilities, we have choices. If I see weak mask compliance at a local grocery store, I can choose to shop at another store. I do not allow anyone near my home door who isn’t wearing a mask; I only talk to my neighbors when we are separated by distance and protected by masks.
I believe in common sense, especially for the common good. But I have no choice when a mask-less police officer comes to my door or pulls me over while driving or walking in my neighborhood — especially as a Black woman.
This is why all police officers must wear masks.
To be sure, wearing a mask has become politicized. However, police officers are essential, public safety employees charged with protecting people from harm. Each uniformed officer of the CPD took an oath to protect and to serve. Serving the public in 2020 means wearing a mask.
A neighbor who works at a grocery store worker may hate wearing a mask but she wears it because she would lose her job otherwise. The mask also protects her life and mine.
Many employees across all sectors struggle with requirements of work and demands of living in a functioning society. But they must meet expectations for the better good.
In my field, if a social work student were found to harm their clients, colleagues, or the public, they would likely first be cautioned to correct their behaviors. If the poor behaviors continued or were extreme, they would be counseled out of the profession.
Not wearing a mask while working for the public is extremism.
Officers who continuously refuse to wear masks while on duty should be counseled out of public safety positions; they have already effectively resigned from their responsibilities.
Tracey Mabrey is an associate professor of social work at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
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