Mass arrests jeopardizing the health of protesters, police

Jacqueline Greene with the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild told POLITICO that many people arrested for curfew violation were packed onto buses for several hours with no ability to socially distance, and later kept in a small outdoor space while temperatures dipped into the 40s.

“Most were there on minor, nonviolent misdemeanor charges,” she said. “They could have cited and released all of these folks and avoided this egregious violation of human rights.”

Scott Kerr, the security captain at the Hamilton County Justice Center, said people who were arrested were not given masks over the weekend, but that the center has gotten additional mask supplies and will be distributing them, including in the staging area before booking.

In Milwaukee, detainees have been taken from one crowded setting to another — buses, vans, staging areas and the district station. Many don’t have masks — or they lost them in scuffles with police, said Larry Dupuis, an ACLU attorney in Wisconsin. “If you don’t have any PPE when you are arrested, they don’t give you any,” he said.

The Milwaukee Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In Washington, D.C., police have arrested several hundred people over the last week. The majority of the arrests were for violating the curfew the mayor imposed; a smaller number was charged with burglary, rioting, looting and assault. Police Chief Peter Newsham on Tuesday also confirmed the use of pepper spray, tear gas and sting balls — which the ACLU and health experts say puts protesters at further risk of infection.

“Whether it’s tear gas or pepper spray or another chemical, they all make it difficult to breathe,” ACLU senior attorney Carl Takei said. “They all cause coughing, which can facilitate the spread of Covid-19. And they all can cause long-term respiratory damage that makes people more vulnerable to coronavirus in the future.”

Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the police’s response “unnecessary and inhumane” given the pandemic. He is talking with some of the protesters about possible legal action.

“There’s been no effort to protect people from transmission of the virus,” he said. “They’re being held in congregate settings with large groups of people. Some were even held overnight, and then given a citation and told to come to court October. There is no reason that couldn’t have been done in the first place.”

Police spokesperson Kristen Metzger said that while up to 30 people at a time were transported to the station in a single vehicle, they were then held in a large room with areas designated for social distancing. “MPD provided masks, hand sanitizer and facilities for handwashing,” she said.

Smith and others say that during pandemic people should not be arrested at all for low-level offenses like a curfew violation. Simple citations, they said, would minimize the risk to the protesters, police and the public.