As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the nation this spring, police departments in major cities began requiring officers to wear masks and gloves when interacting with the public.
The San Jose Police Department added a mask requirement to its COVID-19 response plan March 30. The policy reads: “Effective immediately all personnel will wear all PPEs (masks, gloves, glasses) on every event.”
Now, just ten weeks later with new cases of the virus still being reported around the country, police from coast to coast — San Jose included — are ditching their masks and facing criticism from elected officials who say they’re endangering public health and safety.
At a news conference June 5, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said police should be punished for not wearing masks.
“If officers are not wearing the mask and protective gear that we provided, then they have to be disciplined,” Lightfoot said.
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones — who led the charge last month to require the general public to wear face masks outside their homes — said the department should enforce its policy, but stopped short of calling for disciplinary action.
Instead, Jones said officers who break the rules should be subject to the same treatment as a person not following the city’s mask mandate.
“It should be enforced in the same way we are enforcing it with the general public — with a reminder, a warning and an education,” Jones told San José Spotlight. “I believe that everyone should be wearing a mask or a face covering, including the police department.”
The city charter puts Police Chief Eddie Garcia in charge of disciplining cops, and neither the mayor nor the city council can directly influence how he enforces department policy.
Officers skirted the rules while responding to a shooting at Kelly’s Liquors on the corner of N. 4th and Empire streets May 27 — days before officers would go into large crowds at a George Floyd protest without masks. At least one officer was spotted taking witness statements, standing close to a nearby resident who wore a mask.
During the second day of protests on May 30, while police in riot gear eschewed mandatory face coverings, one officer told a San José Spotlight reporter that he had his mask in pocket but refused to wear it.
“Can I wear it? I can if I want,” he answered when asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask. When pressed about whether the city is mandating masks, the officer shook his head. “I’m outside,” he replied.
#SJPD Officer Pimental said he’s not wearing a mask today because he doesn’t want to, but has one in his pocket. He also said he has to wear his helmet, but didn’t have an answer as to wear it was. He instead asked if I was offended by him not wearing a mask pic.twitter.com/KfA3joVYTg
— Katie Lauer (@_katielauer) May 31, 2020
Garcia could not be reached for comment. But Officer Gina Tepoorten, a police department spokeswoman, issued a statement in response to San José Spotlight’s questions about the policy and whether it is being enforced.
“The events that took place starting on May 29, 2020, were very chaotic,” Tepoorten said. “We know some officers were not wearing face masks on the skirmish lines and we are addressing that with our staff for the future.”
San Jose was among the first big city police departments to adopt a face mask requirement. SJPD made gloves, masks and protective glasses available to officers to wear voluntarily for at least a week before when the department made it mandatory at the end of March.
No such precautions were taken in Detroit where the police department suffered 180 cases of COVID-19 among its ranks by mid-April.
Vice Mayor Jones said he wanted to remind San Jose Police that masks are for their protection too — even if it is sometimes a burden to wear one.
“The public health benefits far outweigh the inconvenience,” Jones said. “Wearing masks is important, not just for the public but for the officers and their families too.”
Meanwhile, in New York City where the police commissioner serves at the pleasure of the mayor, Mayor Bill de Blasio during a news conference Sunday excoriated cops who weren’t wearing masks while dealing with large crowds protesting police brutality last week.
“If we’re asking everyone else to follow the rules, social distancing, wear a face covering for the protection of all, you should do it, too,” de Blasio said. “It’s just a human decency thing.”
The Big Apple mayor said he told Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, “I expect to see improvement in this area.” But the New York Post reported on Thursday that nothing has changed and de Blasio is still threatening discipline for cops who don’t wear masks.
New Yorkers fed up with police consistently failing to adhere to the mask mandate have started a social media campaign, NYPD Mask Watch, to crowdsource photos of cops working without a nose and mouth covering.