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Coughing on public housing residents a symptom of a broader problem than coronavirus | COMMENTARY

A Baltimore police officer is accused of coughing at residents at Perkins Homes in Baltimore.
A Baltimore police officer is accused of coughing at residents at Perkins Homes in Baltimore.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Let’s all agree that the behavior captured in the latest viral video to make it out of Baltimore — a relatively brief snippet posted on Instagram showing a city police officer who appears to deliberately cough on at least two public housing residents — is indefensible, particularly under the current circumstances. Baltimore and the nation are under a serious COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps the single worst health scare of our lifetimes, and a police officer has no business acting in such a manner. Whether he was joking or actually intended to scare the Perkins Homes residents or not is beside the point. Commissioner Michael Harrison has already described the officer’s actions as both “disturbing” and “incomprehensible.” That sounds about right. As he further noted in his official statement, “the video is alarming because this pandemic is affecting lives not only nationally, worldwide, but right here in our own police department.”

But let us also add a few caveats. First, we don’t know the full context here and look forward to the results of the department’s internal investigation. Second, the profanity-laced response of the onlookers isn’t exactly warm, friendly, gracious and supportive either. Not to mention one person spews the ridiculous myth that African Americans can’t get COVID-19, which is disproportionately hitting that group in many cities. That’s certainly not to excuse the officer’s behavior, but some context is important. How much verbal abuse does a patrol officer face walking the beat just a few blocks from Harbor East and Fells Point? And how much do officers invite it? Are patrol officers invested in the Perkins Home community, in the welfare of the people who live there, or do they regard their job like an occupying military force, spurred into action only when a threat to their own well-being is detected?

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We ask these questions because we strongly suspect that city police officers aren’t coughing on city residents in great number. And, further, you don’t have to work especially hard to find many examples of irresponsible personal behavior during the coronavirus outbreak whether you are looking in Canton where young people seeking booze and restaurant carryout may have to be shooed off the sidewalk or others are similarly violating Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home executive order (as police statewide have investigated more than 1,000 times as of Tuesday). And there’s the “important” people acting irresponsibly like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reopening the beaches in his state or a certain right-leaning TV news network cavalierly dismissing public health concerns as overwrought and political until the pandemic grew too large and too deadly to ignore.

What’s really troubling about the video is not just that one police officer used poor judgement, but that the incident may represent a mere symptom of the broader problem of a wholly dysfunctional relationship between city police and some of the communities they serve. If city residents distrust police and police have little empathy for city residents, what hope is there that violent crime can actually be reduced? And we further have to acknowledge an element of race, culture and class differences in this standoff. The police officer in the video is white, the residents are black. And we wouldn’t be shocked to discover he lives far away from the streets he patrols. It’s not exactly surprising that they aren’t communicating well.

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Yet enough is enough. We need to heal wounds exacerbated by Freddie Gray’s death. We need to overcome distrust and improve our outreach, discover our common ground. It’s all very well to admonish this officer. He likely deserves it. But what about all the other officers who, while they might refrain from coughing, are perhaps just as uninterested in reaching out to the people who live in public housing? The failure of police and local residents to be on the same page, to respect each other, to look out for each other, is surely as deadly as any virus. There is no vaccine for mutual distrust.

Baltimore is suffering its own epidemic. There have been 75 homicides so far this year compared to 71 at this point last year which itself was an unusually deadly year. That compares to the slightly more than 100 deaths so far from coronavrius that have prompted dramatic actions these past several weeks. The city homicide rate won’t be reduced by coughing less or wearing face masks or other protective gear. What is needed, desperately, is for the kind of community policing Commissioner Harrison has been promising since he started the job, for treating murder like a public health crisis, attacking its root causes and healing the rift between city residents and their police department. Only then will there be hope for a cure.

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