The long hot days of summer have been punctuated by protests and a surge in criticism of law enforcement and their tactics across the country. After the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, anti-police protests have been happening nearly every day in cities across the country, including Eugene.
One thing the videos and documentation of police tactics have highlighted is that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, police haven’t been wearing face masks to protect themselves and others against the virus. In Eugene, officers are required to wear masks. Springfield police will wear masks but claim masks don’t allow officers to effectively screen for impaired drivers.
On July 1, Gov. Kate Brown ordered all Oregonians to wear face masks in public places to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Eugene Police Department did not require police officers to wear masks until July 15, according to a statement from EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin. “We are once again making adjustments to our current face mask requirements.” she says. McLaughlin says these adjustments are to keep EPD in line with the governor’s statewide mandates.
McLaughlin says the new rule applies to all police personnel “when outdoors engaging the community. This will apply to traffic stops, pedestrian contacts, and any other interaction with our community.”
According to Lane County’s public health spokesperson, Jason Davis, officers might not always be able to wear masks. “Police have a lot of different kinds of encounters,” he says. “Some encounters are naturally socially distanced. When it’s not about interrupting a behavior but really just having a conversation with someone, those can be easily managed.”
Davis also says the masks can disrupt police accountability. “A part of their accountability is that all their conversations with the public are recorded,” he says. “So when you put a mask on and you try to record, there’s a lot that’s left out. For that transparency piece and for the information they record in their conversations they would choose to either pull their mask down while they’re talking to someone or not wear one. But from a public health standpoint, you still want them to wear a mask as much as they can.”
The Springfield Police Department is following a similar policy to EPD. According to an email from Sgt. Dave Grice, police in Springfield are required to wear masks only in non-emergency calls “in which they must enter buildings, stores, residences or otherwise confined spaces.” He says that currently “our employees are directed to wear masks in our building, and while outside if proper social distancing isn’t an option.”
Grice says that the rule SPD is following is “reasonableness.” He adds, “When responding to an urgent call and the ability to don a mask is not feasible, then officers are directed to do so when officer safety permits it.”
Grice says Springfield is not requiring officers to wear masks on traffic stops, “as part of their job is to detect the odor of alcohol and controlled substances, and masks do not allow our officers to effectively screen for impaired drivers.” He adds that the department has “asked officers to apply a mask at the first opportunity to safely do so.”
Jason Davis says so far Lane County has not found any COVID-19 cases linked to police activity through contact tracing. Additionally, no cases have been linked to any of the protests since May 25.
“I think that’s been really frustrating for people who don’t like the protests,” Davis says.