Mask wearing sporadically enforced among nation's major police departments: Analysis

Officers have a "responsibility" to cover their faces, some say,

With major protests against police violence and racial inequality still ongoing in many American cities amid the coronavirus pandemic, health experts have urged protestors to wear a mask and stand six feet apart when possible.

Now, a growing number are calling for police officers to wear masks and practice social distancing, noting that police, too, have a responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus.

An ABC analysis of nine of the nation's largest police departments finds scattershot and randomly enforced policies around mask wearing. While some major police departments across the country require their officers to wear masks and gloves at protests, these policies are not rigorously enforced.

And anecdotal evidence from various cities suggests some portion of officers are choosing to forgo face coverings, including in New York City, where numerous photographs have emerged of unmasked officers interacting with protestors at crowded rallies.

Earlier this month, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City's mayor Bill De Blasio both implored officers to cover their faces.

"Some of them say that they can't breathe, or it blocks their vision. I understand that," Cuomo said. "But my advice and the Health Commissioner's advice is to wear masks, and I think that the Police Department should communicate that to the police."

It's a pattern playing out in multiple cities that infectious disease experts say could contribute to a rise in COVID-19 cases by putting officers and protestors at risk.

"We have a lot of people who are close together during these protests who are talking, singing and yelling," says Emory University's associate professor of Infectious Disease Dr. Jay Varkey.

PHOTO: Police officers are shown on June 15, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter Protest near NYPD headquarters in New York.
Police officers are shown on June 15, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter Protest near NYPD headquarters in New York.
Billy Tompkins/ZUMA Press via Newscom

"When law enforcement wear masks during a pandemic, it shows respect for the public and fellow police officers," Varkey said, adding officers have a "responsibility" to cover their faces.

ABC News reached out to nine police departments across five states, including those in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died, as well as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, where some of the largest protests have taken place.

Among these nine departments, only three require officers to wear masks and gloves while policing the protests. The other six departments ask, but do not mandate, that on-duty officers wear masks or gloves in public, like the NYPD whose spokesperson said "officers are directed to wear masks whenever possible," when interviewed about department policy by ABC News.

Many departments include caveats in their masking policies for situations in which a mask could jeopardize officer safety. In Chicago, a spokesperson for the police department said that "given the heightened activity that officers have been responding to in the past week, there may be situations in which officers may not have masks and gloves on."

In Los Angeles, the Sheriff's department, which has explicitly mandated facial coverings for employees since April 15, makes an exception for a "situation where a facial covering inhibits officer safety."

According to the Los Angeles police department, "the only exceptions to this directive are when wearing face coverings could jeopardize officer safety (e.g., tactical situations), or an officer has a documented medical exemption due to an underlying health condition."

Critics say that departments with vague policies that leave the ultimate decision open to officer discretion are potentially problematic, as some officers seem to be ignoring these non-enforced recommendations and could contribute to viral spread.

"It not only shows total disregard for the individual health of the protesters, but it's also a huge mistake from an occupational safety standpoint," said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. "This is an illustration that police culture tends to think of officers as exceptional and above the rules."

Because of their interface with the public, police officers are among the members of society most at risk for infection, with thousands calling out sick because of illness since the start of the pandemic.

As of June 11, 537 officers in Chicago's police department had tested positive, 113 among the Los Angeles police department, and 102 among the New York state police department.

"Masks are extremely important for reducing the risks of spreading coronavirus," said ABC News medical contributor Dr. Todd Ellerin, the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth.

"The police should be masked not only to protect themselves, but for source control to protect the public," Ellerin said.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization recommend universal masking. Multiple studies, such as a recent one published by Lancet, have shown wearing masks significantly reduces the likelihood of getting infected.

Some departments have adopted more proactive approaches to mitigate the infectious risk associated with close civilian-law enforcement interactions. Departments like Philadelphia, New York State and Minnesota told ABC News they not only recommend masks, but also provide them to officers.

Chicago's police department indicated it is providing and will continue to provide free testing to its police force while Pennsylvania's force is actively screening personnel for symptoms when they arrive at work each day.

With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to climb and with protests expected to continue throughout the summer, finding new ways to mitigate the spread of the virus while in close proximity may become the new normal in many American cities.

"When [civilians] wear masks, our masks protect each other," Varkey said. "When the police wear masks, it demonstrates that police aren't above the law, which police should convey. It also sets a good example."

ABC News' Erin Schumaker contributed to this report.

Ayodola Adigun, M.D., M.S., is a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Yale University. Alexis E. Carrington, M.D., is currently completing her internal medicine preliminary year at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City. Jessica Johnson, M.D., is a senior resident in emergency medicine at Stanford University. Sony Salzman is coordinating producer of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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