Broken trust. Racist arrest stats. Unprompted violence. NYPD enforcement of social distancing was bound to fail, and after weeks of relentless community criticism, a normally stubborn Mayor de Blasio has shifted the police’s role. What comes next must be a smart, actionable plan that empowers local communities to educate, assist, and lead first-level enforcement of social distancing rules. 

Plenty of politicians have recently called for “the community” to lead instead of NYPD. I agree. But we need more than words. We need a plan that gives neighborhoods the opportunity to take care of themselves. During a pandemic that has greatly strained New Yorkers’ trust in government, this is an opportunity for our city leaders to give local communities resources, and the trust them to build on the innovations we’ve seen from mutual aid groups during the crisis. 

We can now agree that NYPD were ill-suited for the sensitive culture shifting required by this moment. Even if community relationships were better, the NYPD ranks are decimated by COVID, the department has many other obligations, and the police officers’ union has suggested discomfort with their role in social distancing enforcement. 

While the NYPD were the wrong choice, they were addressing a real problem. We are still in the throes of a pandemic. Walk through any park or down any major street and you’ll find many New Yorkers of all racial and economic backgrounds not wearing masks, wearing masks incorrectly, or congregating in groups without proper distancing. Our leadership has failed to convey the urgency of best health practices. This requires a robust response, or a second wave of the virus could sink the city when we reopen. 

Last week Mayor de Blasio suggested that 2,000 civilian staff will continue enforcement work, a kinder, gentler ticketing regime. I’m skeptical. First, in our diverse city, people will be most responsive to credible messengers from their own communities. Second, the scale of offending is so vast at this point that ticketing will only breed resentment and accusations of selective enforcement. (Plus, everyone is reeling economically right now.) Third, these city employees eventually have to get back to their original jobs; alternatively, hiring 2,000 new people will take forever, without necessarily yielding the right people for this task. 

Instead, I am proposing an neighborhood-based approach that will educate the community, shift the culture around social distancing and mask use, and devise creative ways for people to socialize safely.  Each neighborhood (defined by either City Council district, Community Board, or police precinct) would be served by a lead organization—a nonprofit, mutual aid group, violence interrupter—some entity with a track record of local work. That neighborhood lead would be tasked and paid by the city to do the following work:

• Educate the community on best health practices, using culturally relevant outreach. We are the most creative city in the country. Surely we can do better in communicating with different groups across the city about why social distancing matters and why wearing masks keep each other safe.

• Coordinate staff and volunteers. Local volunteers, who have signed up in huge numbers for mutual aid, could be put to immediate use walking their neighborhood beats, handing out masks and sharing information. They could wear brightly colored jerseys, and develop a city-wide identity as regular New Yorkers just trying to help out. Young people could reach out to young people, NYCHA residents to fellow residents, block associations repping their blocks. This could be an unprecedented call to local civic action.

• Enforce social distancing, without relying on handcuffs or tickets. People can be trained on a good messaging script and de-escalation. (311 social distancing calls could be directed to these neighborhood leads.) If a regular volunteer is unable to convince a group of people to change their behavior, someone with more experience from the neighborhood lead would be called in. Police would only be called in response to crimes.. An approach like this would be enormously self-empowering for communities, and potentially start reversing the oppressive generational trauma in which some neighborhoods feel like “occupied territory” due to pervasive law enforcement presence. (There is nothing *wrong* with police officers handing out masks in parks, but it is not the best use of city resources, when others can do it better.)

• Create responsible community events. We know “abstinence-only” doesn’t work, whether we’re talking about sex, alcohol, or social distancing. As the weather gets nice, people will want to see their friends and stretch their legs. One neighborhood activist suggested to me that basketball courts be used for “around the world” tournaments, a shooting skill game that can be performed one at a time. That’s the kind of creative thinking that can build community.

None of these concepts are new – we’ve seen countless groups support their local communities throughout New York City’s history. The “Occupy Sandy” model of disaster response and the work of localized mutual aid groups give us a contemporary flavor for what is possible. In my own organizing experience, most relevantly in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, I’ve seen communities show extraordinary capacity for self-leadership when the government can’t be counted on. 

Some may ask how to pay for this. One place to look is grants the City has already given to nonprofit groups that can’t be met due to COVID. Those programs could be repurposed. Likewise, existing government allocations like the Summer Youth Jobs Program and participatory budgeting could be steered towards these health & relief efforts. This will not be expensive. 

We can roll out this program immediately, starting with pilot neighborhoods—places where this concept has the support of local electeds and that have well-run organizations already in place. Those neighborhoods could have volunteers on the street by the end of next week.  Time is of the essence, and if we can fine-tune the program quickly, we can get it going citywide in June. Having this kind of civic engagement around public health will make reopening so much safer. 

This is a huge opportunity. Those of us who have done deep community work know that a well-organized neighborhood can take care of itself. Demonstrating it in this crisis will be essential to shaping our city and state budget priorities over the next two years. For example, the more we can keep each other safe, the more we can reduce the NYPD budget and support other essential priorities. Finally, this proposal is just one approach – every community should improvise and see what fits best culturally. 

So many New Yorkers who have stepped up heroically to get us through COVID-19. Now it’s time for the rest of us to chip in and share responsibility. Getting people to wear masks and socially distance won’t be solved with handcuffs and Tasers, it will come with a cultural shift and creative educational approach delivered by credible messengers. This is consistent with the broader vision I have advanced in my run for Manhattan District Attorney, which is in turn informed by my years of working with communities: investing in people rather than punishing them will yield better results in the long run. 

When New Yorkers work together, we can keep ourselves healthy and safe. 


Janos Marton is a civil rights attorney, criminal justice campaign director, and candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. 

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