The white officer said nothing, but continued to walk past the Perkins Homes housing complex. Then, he appeared to intentionally cough more than 10 times without covering his mouth as he passed within a few feet of the black woman and other residents standing in the courtyard.
“I should call the CDC,” said the woman, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “and let them know he just did some dirty s--- like that.”
The Baltimore Police Department announced an internal investigation into the incident Tuesday after reviewing the video shared on social media. The department also said it would review the unnamed officer’s body camera footage.
“After watching the full video, in its entirety, it is not only disturbing, but incomprehensible,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement to The Washington Post Tuesday, “especially considering the high-level of strong and clear guidance that we have provided from the beginning, regarding COVID-19.”
The residents milling several feet apart in the yard jumped back with surprise and revulsion when the officer started coughing in proximity to them. They shouted at the officer and told him to get away, as the Baltimore police sergeant continued walking along the sidewalk.
The woman said she wasn’t worried about catching the novel coronavirus because she is black, repeating a myth that has been debunked by the World Health Organization. In fact, data shows that anyone can contract the virus, regardless of race, and black communities in some cities have seen higher death tolls.
The officer joins the ranks of those who have flouted coronavirus precautions and taken actions that could potentially exacerbate the pandemic. Apparent attempts to intentionally spread the virus, whether authentic or made in jest, have led to serious consequences including arrests and even terrorism charges.
In Pennsylvania, a grocery store threw out more than $35,000 worth of food after a woman intentionally coughed all over the produce, deli and bakery sections. A New Jersey man coughed on a grocery store employee after she asked him to back away from the counter and was charged with making terroristic threats. A man who posted video of himself licking a row of deodorant sticks for sale in a Walmart also faced criminal charges in Missouri. And police arrested a Texas teenager after she threatened to “infest” everyone at a store after claiming to have tested positive for coronavirus.
The Baltimore Police Department has not announced a criminal investigation into the incident made public on Tuesday, but Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott denounced the officer’s actions.
“COVID-19 is not a joke and this behavior is beyond unacceptable,” Scott said on Twitter. “Everyone can contract COVID-19 and all of Baltimore has to take this seriously and treat each other with respect. For public servants, this means carrying out duties with safety and compassion at the forefront of all actions.”
The officer’s ill-advised coughing fit comes just one day after the department reopened a district office that had to be disinfected after an employee tested positive for coronavirus, the Baltimore Sun reported.
“Members are always expected to be sensitive and professional to the community,” Harrison, the police commissioner, said in the statement to The Post, “but what we saw in the video is alarming because this pandemic is affecting lives not only nationally, worldwide, but right here in our own police department.”
More than 300 officers on the police force have been quarantined since the pandemic began, with 115 currently in quarantine, the police commissioner said. As of Tuesday, 12 officers have tested positive for the virus and 59 tests are still pending.
The danger posed to police officers by the virus did not go unnoticed by the woman who filmed the officer coughing near her and her neighbors. At the end of the video, she offered him a warning about what might happen if he didn’t cover his coughs.
“You ain’t going to infect nobody but your co-workers,” she said.