Policing’s embrace of the covid vaccines, like that of a significant minority of Americans, has been lackluster and occasionally obstinate. Only about half of the New York Police Department is fully vaccinated. Denver has threatened to fire police officers who refuse to comply with vaccination rules. And the labor union for San Francisco deputy sheriffs warns that many of its members would rather quit than take the shots.
At the same time, governments and businesses across the country are rapidly imposing vaccine mandates in public and private settings as they try to keep up with the fast-moving delta variant: New York City will soon require proof of a jab for indoor dining, bars, movies and other entertainment; with vaccines not yet approved for young children, some school districts in Florida and Texas are defying their governors’ bans on mask mandates and imposing them anyway; and Walmart, Tyson Foods, Google, Facebook and United Airlines are among the corporate giants declaring that their workers will be fired if they remain unvaccinated. Even musicians such as Jason Isbell and Lady Gaga are imposing ad hoc vaccine mandates for people who want to see them perform, sometimes canceling shows in venues that won’t comply.
Policing and public health appear to be at odds at this decisive moment in the pandemic.
Coercion is an unpalatable but necessary public health tool, and the police have long been at the forefront of ensuring compliance. They are the people who stop us from speeding, arrest drunk drivers, issue tickets for not wearing seat belts and bust bar owners who serve alcohol to minors. But if the nation’s public law enforcement apparatus — already overburdened with all that Americans ask it to do — is challenging the response to a public health crisis, how can it also enforce it?
The answer is that it probably can’t, or won’t, and in some instances maybe even shouldn’t.
That leaves private actors, who can play a critical role if coercion is necessary for compliance, but who are now in crucial ways entering uncharted territory.
Policing through private action is not a new phenomenon, even though we rarely talk about it. Some scholars have noted for years that private policing is all around us, but we often don’t recognize the many forms it takes. If we think of policing broadly as the way communities set and enforce behavioral rules, we spend big parts of our lives in environments where private actors routinely monitor our compliance in police-like ways. Think about retail stores, hotels, theaters, bars, restaurants, banks, schools or other workplaces that are privately owned but communally accessed. A classic essay on the private ordering of public behavior at Disney World shows just how powerful private actors can be in dictating our behavior as customers: “Virtually every pool, fountain and flower garden serves both as aesthetic object and to direct visitors way from, or towards, particular locations” at Disney. But the coercive edge remains just below the surface. Every employee, even in a Donald Duck outfit, helps maintain order. For example, a father and his barefoot daughter “were approached by a very personable security guard dressed as a Bahamian police officer, with white pith helmet and white gloves that perfectly suited the theme of the area.” The father’s explanation that the daughter had a blister was met with the guard’s politely informing them that he would escort them out if she didn’t put her shoes on. Paying customers do not want to forfeit their entertainment experience, so they comply. Often, private policing occurs quietly because it is embedded in the places where we work and play. Few people dispute privately imposed rules in leisure and work environments that we choose to enter, especially when such rules are invoked in the name of our security.
It is one thing to acknowledge that private actors play vital roles in our security landscape; we all notice security guards, bouncers and patrols-for-hire. The idea of private policing in the name of public health, however, may feel less intuitive and perhaps not even feasible. It is the person who puts the food on your table at a restaurant or reminds you to throw away your popcorn tub at the movie theater, or the grocery store cashier or gym manager — or, at your office, the human resources officer — who will ensure that you’ve complied with masking and vaccination rules. If these people get backup, it is more likely to be from private security officers hired to conduct enforcement than from local public authorities. We can expect to see bouncers checking vaccination cards along with driver’s licenses, and private security firms touting their expertise in keeping the verification process safe and orderly. Law enforcement may respond to disputes and even protests that arise when people challenge these rules, but otherwise they will have an uncertain or limited role.
The enforcement burden is not trivial. At least four workers have been killed in disputes about masking since the requirements were enacted. Cashier Laquitta Willis was shot and killed at a Big Bear Supermarket in Georgia, allegedly by a man who wouldn’t pull up his mask, as was Baltimore bus driver Franky Duckett. That number doesn’t count the shouting matches, fistfights and even stabbings these essential workers have endured.
Policing human behavior is never easy, but it’s rare we’ve asked this many people to do it. Will we see the rise of a new industry offering specialized products and services for the policing of health-related behaviors? Or will we reach a time when compliance with health directives feels less forced and more woven into the fabric of everyday life?
Voluntary compliance with public health mandates may not be fully achievable in the age of covid-19, at least in the short term. A cornerstone of modern public health is the belief that science can carry the day by preventing the spread of disease and injury. Given the right knowledge and incentives, most people will willingly comply with programs meant to protect their community in times of crisis. But people’s response to the pandemic has countered this rosy view of human nature with stark doses of reality. Millions of Americans have explicitly rejected the scientific motivations of public health and the basic precepts of epidemiology. At a recent political fundraiser in Alabama, the crowd cheered Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) when she noted that Alabama — where 65,000 expired vaccine doses were discarded because of lack of demand — had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Other politicians, including some Republicans in Oklahoma, have likened mandatory vaccination to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Incidents like these make clear that some will reject the duty of social cooperation, and that we cannot rely on even “rock solid” science and evidence to secure it unless we force people to do things they don’t want to do.
Forcing people to do things they don’t want to do is usually a job left to the police. But this creates a tricky environment for law enforcement officers, who have themselves shown a reluctance to ensure compliance: In the past year, for example, elected sheriffs from Los Angeles to North Carolina have refused to enforce mask mandates.
So the move into the private policing of public health rules raises basic questions about what to expect of private enterprise when it comes to protecting the health and safety of a community, what role the public police should have in shoring up these private initiatives, and to what extent effective responses to crises such as the pandemic are inherently more coercive than we would like. Fostering voluntary compliance with coronavirus restrictions might best be achieved by coordinating the actions of the many public and private actors involved, but that task seems impossible.
Medical ethics gives individual patients the autonomy to make their own decisions about treatment, even if those decisions are not always rational. But public health is different: It strives to protect entire communities from illness and disease using far-reaching programs that require widespread and sustained cooperation, especially in response to communicable diseases. At the end of the last century, this meant using condoms to have safer sex with anyone but the most trusted partners; for decades, it has meant wearing seat belts and obeying the speed limit; and at the moment, it means getting a coronavirus vaccine and masking up as necessary.
Ultimately, the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the vaccines will open the door to government mandates in a broad range of public institutions, from schools to local, state and federal agencies. Coronavirus tests in lieu of shots will cease to be an option, and the new vaccines will be on a par with those instituted long ago for measles, mumps, rubella, polio and tetanus, all diseases that have been largely eradicated through strict requirements in all 50 states. In the long term, this shift might reduce the emphasis on private policing of our pandemic response and perhaps even render it unnecessary. In the meantime, we’ve identified an unlikely and largely untapped resource: private institutions that have traditionally been resistant to regulation but who are taking up the task as guardians of public health. It is an opportunity we should carefully explore and, if the results are promising, leverage to ensure our response to future public health emergencies isn’t overly reliant on political institutions and constituencies that stubbornly discount science. Private actors could be valuable; after all, they hold the key to many of the very goods, services and experiences that are at stake if we don’t do the right thing.