Op-ed: Stay-at-home policy isn’t effective without economic security and education

Durham Beyond Policing (DBP) is a coalition of organizers based in Durham, North Carolina, focused on developing viable alternatives to policing and incarceration. Last year, DBP successfully petitioned city government to halt measures that would have drastically increased the number of police officers in the city, and to vote in favor of a Community-led Safety and Wellness task force to find and propose police alternatives.


In this time of fear and uncertainty, we’ve seen states including Illinois, California, and New York institute lockdowns, or shelter-in-place policies. Here in Durham, Mayor Schewel issued a ‘stay-at-home’ order on March 25th, similar to the one issued by Mecklenberg county. We should think carefully about how a policy intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 can be implemented in the most equitable way possible. On the state level, Governor Cooper has imposed orders to reinforce social distancing, which hasn’t to date involved police enforcement. We insist that curfews, shelter-in-place and ‘stay-at-home’ policies are only as effective as the social and economic supports that make it possible for working class people to fairly and reasonably follow them. Police and the military should not be deployed to enforce these mandates. If someone is not staying at home, it is worthwhile to ask why. A stay-at-home policy must also be accompanied by a communications plan for widespread, consistent, accessible, and multilingual messaging about how the stay-at-home commitment benefits everyone.

If we truly want to slow the spread of COVID-19, we have to view it as a shared problem, which means we have to truly collectivize the benefits of society. We must demand that the payments to individuals as being proposed by Congress increase and continue as a matter of course, and that they be provided to everyone regardless of employment, immigration, or housing status. We must suspend rent and mortgage payments, nationalize utilities, and fundamentally rethink our relationships to local and global economies. Homeless community members must be provided safe and adequate shelter. Evictions and foreclosures must stop, student debt must be forgiven. People must be released from jail, prison, and detention. Public safety is paramount in this time, and conditions on the ground should make it clear that public safety is best held by the collective, not by law enforcement.

For those who don’t have the privilege of a home address, sheltering in place would mean staying on the streets, risking exposure to themselves and to response workers.

A lockdown or similar order generally requires individuals to stay at home unless attending to “essential” business, and holds the force of law. For example, in California, curfew violations are punishable by “fine, imprisonment, or both.” Either form of enforcement would be harmful and both ignore the fact that, for those who don’t have the privilege of a home address, sheltering in place would mean staying on the streets, risking exposure to themselves and to response workers. The Durham order states that “individuals experiencing homelessness are exempt from this directive.” In the press conference announcing the order, Mayor Schewel mentioned that the city was working on solutions but has not yet specified details.

Anticipating public anxiety regarding certain terminology, some states and municipalities are avoiding terms like ‘curfew’ or ‘lockdown’ and softening the rhetoric and enforcement of such measures with the idea of a ‘shelter-in-place’ or ‘stay-at-home’ where a police officer’s role might be to create ‘teachable moments’ where they “explain to people the importance of following the health guideline.” Continued public education on COVID-19 is necessary, but police officers are not suitable for this role. 

The notion of police officers issuing curfew violation tickets during a time of economic crisis is concerning.

In most cases, whether such a policy is called a ‘curfew’ or a ‘shelter-in-place,’ the deployment of law enforcement personnel ultimately implies the threat of fines and imprisonment. The Durham order mandates that all sworn officers enforce its provisions, and Mayor Schewel suggests that they do so through orders to disperse rather than through fines and imprisonment, unless there is “a continuous or egregious offense.” However, an individual officer may determine whether a given offense is ‘continuous’ or ‘egregious’, which could result in ramped-up racial profiling and biased targeting of Black and brown people. 

The notion of police officers issuing curfew violation tickets during a time of economic crisis is concerning. Thousands of people in the service industry and similar fields have been laid off following the most recent state restrictions on COVID-19, making many of our friends and neighbors financially vulnerable. With an economic forecast this severe, it seems likely that those of us most unable to pay a fine would be amongst those most often fined. Jail or prison as punishment for violation of a curfew is potentially dangerous to collective safety, as Dr. Amanda Klonsky argued in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. It is conceivable that a curfew violator, if imprisoned, might be more likely to contract and spread COVID-19 during their incarceration and release than through the act of the curfew violation itself.

Finally, we would guess that many people who are disregarding the social distancing recommendations are doing so from a place of necessity. It is kinder, smarter and more cost effective to help marginalized people get their needs met than to criminalize them for endangering themselves and the public good. Mere sympathy and acknowledgement of the economic difficulty caused by the pandemic are inadequate governmental responses. We also acknowledge that there are those violating the best prevention practices out of denial. We urge residents of North Carolina to affirm adherence to these practices—we neighbors can be a united force of up-to-date information, the best public health practices, and our love and commitment to one another and to a North Carolina for all. We urge all our communities to join this voluntary force for the common good, and to demand that any state or municipal ‘stay-at-home’ orders be accompanied by the economic security that makes adherence to such a policy possible for all of us.