Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
As the country braces itself for the “all but certain” global pandemic of the coronavirus, some people are stocking up on food and surgical masks, many are Googling how to wash their hands properly, and some are asking how best to keep their children safe. Meanwhile, police are taking advantage of the fearful climate to arrest vulnerable people with drug dependencies. Or, at the very least, they are joking about it in a way that has seemed real enough to fool some people.
“WARNING: If you have recently purchased Meth, it may be contaminated with the Corona Virus,” wrote the Merrill Police Department of Wisconsin, in a Facebook post about the disease last week. “If you’re not comfortable going into an office setting, please request any officer and they’ll test your Meth in the privacy of your home. Please spread the word! We are here for you!”
“It was one of several police departments nationwide to push out the hoax,” reported Meagan Flynn for the Washington Post, and it “generated mixed reactions, some seeing it as funny, others as deplorable, fueling coronavirus fears through fake public service announcements on official channels.”
“I would rather not see police departments making ‘jokes’ like this online or posting false information about a pandemic that is already being treated cavalierly by the executive branch,” one woman said in a comment on the Merrill Police Department’s post. Another person replied, “shut up snowflake.”
It’s hard for the police to even claim that the post was a joke, because they made clear that they had every intention of arresting anyone who came in with drugs. “We will take those easy grabs at removing poison from our community whenever we can,” the department wrote in a follow-up the next day. “That is our role which we un-apologetically must fulfill. It is our hope that an arrest would be the positive catalyst someone may need to start recovery. It is our hope that every drug arrest both works to hold offenders accountable for their deeds and provides them with a path toward treatment options.”
Departments in St. Francis County, Arkansas; Johnson City, Texas; Tavares, Florida; and Decatur County, Kansas, have put out similar messages, and some have gotten local news outlets to run the story like a police news release without a hint of skepticism. “Texas police say local meth is contaminated with coronavirus, offer to test it,” read one headline.
People have also taken the announcements seriously, leading to confusion that public health experts say is dangerous, counterproductive, and inexcusable. “That’s pretty extraordinary,” Stefano M. Bertozzi, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health, told the Washington Post. “This is a time when people need to be taking public health authorities very seriously,” he added. “They’re undermining their credibility that will be very much needed if and when an epidemic comes to their community.”
During the Ebola outbreak in 2016, the police department in Granite Shoals, Texas, conducted a similar hoax. “If you have recently purchased meth or heroin in Central Texas, please take it to the local police or sheriff department so it can be screened with a special device,” the since-deleted post said, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “DO NOT use it until it has been properly checked for Ebola contamination!” Police also did this during the Zika virus outbreak in 2018.
One woman showed up at the police station to have drugs tested for Ebola. She was arrested and charged with possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance, the Express-News reported. “That was another joke for the police, who called the defendant the ‘winner’ of the contest,” writes Flynn for the Washington Post.
“Giving mythological information and being tongue-in-cheek about something that’s really serious, where there’s been a lot of loss and a lot of deaths seems just problematic coming from a state agency,” Jon Zibbell, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News.
It isn’t the first time that police have exploited fear and vulnerability to make easy arrests. When I was working as a public defender, some of the arrests I found especially cruel were bait operations, whereby police would leave goods lying outside to see who was desperate enough to take them, and then arresting that person. One scheme that seemed to be a favorite among NYPD officers in the Bronx involved having a female police officer go undercover and try to sell an iPad to a local store owner, saying she had taken it from her abusive boyfriend and badly needed to sell it in order to escape him. If the person behind the counter took her up on the offer, he or she would be arrested for attempted possession of stolen property.
In Seattle, which has a problem with homelessnes and poverty, police place bicycles in poor neighborhoods, hoping to catch those who might take an interest. The Seattle Times reports that in the summer of 2018, 41-year-old Jolene Paris was near a Goodwill outlet store, a liquidation center where they offer goods in bulk that didn’t sell at a regular Goodwill. It is a regular gathering spot for the homeless and the near-homeless. Paris noticed a silver road bicycle in the dirt near some shrubs. She says she started wheeling it around the Goodwill parking lot, asking if it belonged to anyone. But it was a bait bike, and Paris was arrested and charged with theft.
“The defendant, through her own free will, saw and took the bicycle. Seattle Police did not induce or lure the defendant into taking the bike,” prosecutors argued in a brief. “This was a sting operation that targeted homeless people,” defense attorney Brandon Davis argued in a pretrial brief. “It is one of the poorest areas in the city. [Police] placed this bicycle near a Goodwill, a store that serves people with low incomes, and left the bike unlocked. Prosecution of such a person is befitting of Dickensian London, not 21st-century Seattle.” Prosecutors said Paris’s financial condition was irrelevant.
It took the jury half an hour to acquit.
“There are certain charges that are just plain wrong to prosecute,” Davis, the defense attorney, summed up to the court. “This is thousands of dollars to create, and prosecute, a theft charge. [The Seattle Police Department] states they are concerned about property crimes in Sodo, and presumably this is because they are concerned with victims of property crime. The city failed those victims by directing their resources to this case.”
In Chicago in 2018, police filled a truck with designer shoes and left it partially open in an operation reportedly nicknamed Operation Trailer Trap. It led to multiple arrests, and vitriolic protests by community groups who said the truck was parked in low-income, predominantly Black areas of the city and risked worsening the relationship between residents and the police. “Police in Chicago must focus on building trust and better relationships within the communities they serve, not engage in stunts like bait trucks,” Karen Sheley of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. “[The police department] admits that it can’t solve murders and violent crimes because communities of color don’t trust the Chicago Police. These stunts won’t help.” Roderick Sawyer, chairperson of the City Council’s Black Caucus, slammed the operation as an attempt to “create crime.”
The lesson, so far, is clear: Where there is fear and vulnerability, police will find a way to cash in on arrests.
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