A Guide for Activists on Stay-in-Place Orders

Media Advisory: Local Groups Call On Dc Law Enforcement To Halt Nonviolent Arrests, Limit Police Interactions During “Stay-at-home” Mandate
March 25, 2020
A Balancing Act: Your Health vs. Your Rights
April 1, 2020

Defending Rights & Dissent has been working with community organizations to make sure necessary public health precautions don’t inadvertently lead to increased over-policing. We’ve prepared this guide that can help.

The United States, along with the rest of the world, is in the midst of a deadly pandemic. As a result, state and local governments are taking extraordinary measures to prevent the community spread of COVID-19. 

This can present challenging questions for civil libertarians and those who are concerned about over-policing. Stay-at-home orders, in the midst of a pandemic are a necessary public health measure. But how do we make sure such orders don’t infringe on civil liberties or lead to increased policing?

We know that police and jails are never a public health solution. With COVID-19, however, police and jails are also a public health detriment. Detention centers, jails, and prisons are uniquely vulnerable to community spread. With the spread of the coronavirus, over policing and unnecessary detention can be a death sentence. 

If reducing police contact with the general public and decarceration are essential to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, then any stay-at-home order that relies on such tools undermines itself. 

When Defending Rights & Dissent and local community groups in Washington, DC were faced with these issues, we came up with some broad principles for how to enact a stay-at-home order based on principles of decarceration. They include:

  • If public health warrants “stay-at-home” orders, as it has in other cities and states across the country, such an order should not increase police-general public encounters. 
  • While it is perfectly reasonable that such an order be enforced against businesses and similar entities that endanger the public by defying it, it should not create penalties for individuals.
  • Stay-at-home orders and social distancing must apply to the police, as well.
  • A moratorium on arrests for nonviolent offenses must be included in the order.
  • Decarceration is now a public health imperative. In addition to suspending non-emergency matters, the city should consider dismissing all nonviolent cases and lower-level violent cases with no history of violence. 

While these principles were meant to influence a potential stay-at-home order in DC (DC has yet to issue such an order, but like everywhere the situation is rapidly evolving), they are broadly applicable. If you or community groups you are part of are concerned about how a stay at order could impact police-community encounters, these principles could help guide your advocacy. Defending Rights & Dissent has prepared the above sample language to help. If you have further questions or would like additional help please email Info@RightsAndDissent.org