Coronavirus: Fears, misinformation spreads in San Jose over police enforcement of orders

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, rumors and misinformation can spread just as quickly as the disease.

In San Jose, social media posts proliferated alleging police officers were stopping people in low-income neighborhoods for violating the state’s “shelter-in-place” order, which asks residents to stay inside unless they need to do essential tasks.

The claims alarmed police officials, who said San Jose police officers are “strictly prohibited” from detaining a person on the suspicion they broke the rules — a policy that was put in place one day after the mandate was issued.

“One of the first things I did was prohibit our police officers from making car stops or pedestrian stops solely based on that order,” San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia told San José Spotlight Monday. “It’s certainly not a time to instill fear in our community.”

The “broad spectrum” of reasons a person can leave the house makes it difficult for police to enforce, he said, adding that the department does not want to erode the community’s trust by citing people.

“There are so many exemptions to the order that an officer can’t reasonably believe that anybody outside their house is violating the order,” Garcia said.

State leaders have ordered people to stay in their homes unless they leave the house to perform tasks such as exercise, picking up groceries, doing laundry, going to the bank, getting medicine, going to work at an essential business, or caring for family or pets.

One of the posts that surfaced online Friday suggested “law enforcement” in the city was pulling over drivers in the East Side requesting documentation to go to work.

But San Jose police quickly denied involvement.

“We certainly aren’t going to operate that way,” Garcia said. “If someone feels that’s occurred to them, I strongly want them to notify us so we can deal with this issue as we do with any other violation.”

Councilmember Maya Esparza, who represents part of East Side, said mixed messages about the city’s new 3-1-1 hotline last week could have confused residents, contributing to the false rumors and widespread fear.

“I think people might have gotten confused on the messaging,” said Esparza, who worked with police officials to resolve the allegation. “But the fact is nonessential businesses should not be open and yes, it’s forcing people to go to work and expose themselves when they don’t need to be.”

Garcia dispelled the rumors on Monday — less than a week after he and Mayor Sam Liccardo urged residents to alert authorities by calling 3-1-1 if they saw “nonessential” businesses or residents violate the health order. That’s the only real enforcement mechanism the city has right now.

While the police department is not enforcing the mandate, he said officers are actively educating residents to stay clear of gatherings and activities where the virus could easily spread.

“If there is a basketball game at one of our parks and a neighbor calls the police… we’re going to respond to that and educate the group to let them know they need to go home,” Garcia added. “But we want to continue to educate our community — I don’t foresee a time where we’re actually citing people that are out.”

Still, some community members are taking precautionary measures. Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, said employees have requested a letter from her in the event they’re questioned by law enforcement.

“As shelter-in-place enforcement ramps up, we will continue to do what we can to share information and tools to help mitigate community fears and keep people safe,” she said.

False information can worsen an ongoing crisis by heightening the public’s anxiety and mistrust of government, often hurting vulnerable and immigrant communities that already have shaky relationships with law enforcement.

In such cases, swirling rumors in San Jose’s vast immigrant communities can do more harm than good. That’s why Esparza said “general statements” only stoked people’s fears. Instead, she’s calling on residents to report specific information to the police department.

“General statements aren’t helpful,” Esparza, who represents District 7, said. “It’s something I take very seriously because I know in my community people are afraid. We just don’t need to add to those fears.”

Some unverified sources have even spread misleading posts that the U.S. government plans on imposing martial law or that a national quarantine order will soon take place.

“It causes mistrust. It would cause people not to want to go out and take care of the business that they need because a fear of being stopped and harassed,” said Rick Callender, vice president of California/Hawaii State Conference of the NAACP.

Callender said new messages were circulating claiming “a friend at the FBI” or “a friend at FEMA” were being used to verify false information. He urged the public to be wary of these messages and condemned the people posting online.

“There are some evil people out there that will use this unfortunate situation to cause fear and mayhem,” he added. “It’s unhealthy.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Rick Callender serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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