July 16, 2020

Mayor Muriel Bowser
District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Chief Peter Newsham
Metropolitan Police Department
300 Indiana Avenue, NW, Room 5059
Washington, DC 20001

Dear Mayor Bowser and Chief Newsham:

As the District navigates Phase Two of reopening, the safety and well-being of all D.C. residents must be the top priority. It is important that we continue to underscore the health and safety risks associated with COVID-19 as D.C. residents grapple with the traumas of this unprecedented public health crisis and the uproar of recent events. As of July 14, a total of 11,026 District residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 571 have succumbed to the illness.[1]

In light of these stark indicators and the recognition that COVID-19 is an ongoing crisis, it is alarming to see Metropolitan Police Department officers, as front-line government workers, not adhering to public health guidance on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). We write to ask that you take steps to require mandatory use of PPE for all MPD officers.

There have been numerous reports, including photo and video documentation by community members, of MPD officers failing to wear masks while engaging with the public and conducting enforcement activities.[2] We understand that MPD officers have been given masks and are encouraged to wear them at their discretion, especially when in contact with someone within six feet. However, officers are not required to wear PPE while out on patrol and many are choosing to forego masks.[3]

While the District’s Stay-at-Home Order has been lifted, Phase Two guidelines require people to maintain a six-foot distance and wear a face covering when around others who are not from the same household.[4] This is consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends masks be worn by everyone when out in public to reduce the risk of exposure of COVID-19 by individuals who may be positive with the virus.[5] Notably, many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic or present mild symptoms, but may still be contagious.[6] It is therefore imperative for District employees whose jobs involve daily interaction with the public to be required to wear PPE. Officers’ failure to wear PPE actively endangers both officers themselves and individuals with whom they interact.

This is also an urgent matter of racial justice. The pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated the glaring health and economic disparities experienced by Black people in D.C., as they bear the brunt of the devastating impacts of COVID-19.[7] Black residents make up 424, or 74 percent, of the 571 COVID-19 deaths thus far in the District.[8] As recently reported, DC’s racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths is greater than any other major city with demographic data reported.[9] MPD officers’ failure to wear PPE poses the greatest risk of harm to D.C.’s Black residents, who are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement than other residents. D.C.’s predominantly Black neighborhoods have the greatest police presence, and Black community members are disproportionately targeted by police for stops, searches, and arrests. [10]

Currently, a total of 169 MPD sworn officers have tested positive for COVID-19, with 136 who have recovered and returned to work.[11] Individuals who have recovered from the illness may still be contagious and could also get re-infected.[12] Early in the wake of the public health emergency, MPD officers in the Sixth District—a majority Black District covering a large swath of Ward 7 east of the Anacostia and parts of Ward 8—were hardest hit among officers, with cases five times higher than the District’s average.[13]

Recent demonstrations in the District in response to police brutality and systemic racism have further increased close encounters between large numbers of community members and MPD officers, posing even greater risk of increased community spread of COVID-19. In many instances, officers have been documented not wearing protective masks while standing within six feet or closer of protesters and while monitoring protests, when engaged in situations of escalated conflict, and when making arrests. With protests not expected to end soon, continuing to leave the wearing of masks up to officer discretion unnecessarily exposes demonstrators and officers alike to this deadly virus.

Beyond the issue of PPE, we believe a public health crisis warrants a public health—not law enforcement—response. Therefore, officers should not be tasked with enforcing COVID-19 social distancing rules. Besides their intimidating approach setting the stage for tensions to escalate unnecessarily,[14] officers themselves have expressed frustration at their inability to effectively enforce social distancing rules.[15] MPD officers’ enforcement of these rules also contributes to over-policing, which typically falls on Black and Brown people. Instead, social distancing enforcement should be conducted by public health professionals and community leaders, such as health outreach workers and violence interrupters, and the District’s approach should focus on public education rather than intimidation and arrest.

We hope that you give these concerns serious consideration and take swift action to mandate the use of PPE for all MPD officers when they are interacting with the public.


Nassim Moshiree, Policy Director

ACLU of the District of Columbia


[1] Government of the District of Columbia. “Public Safety Agency COVID-19 Case Data.” Updated July 14, 2020. Available at https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/public-safety-agency-covid-19-case-data.

[2] WAMU 88.5. “D.C. In Turmoil: Protest, Police And D.C.’s Black Community.” The Kojo Nnamdi Show, June 1, 2020. Available at https://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2020-06-01/unpacking-police-interactions-with-d-c-s-black-community.

[3] Gocalves, D. “DC police officers in 6th District at increased risk for COVID-19.” WUSA9, April 20, 2020. Available at https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/dc/dc-police-officers-in-6th-district-are-increased-risk-for-covid-19/65-9f650ffd-64d0-4458-b731-6da845ec4101.

[4] Government of the District of Columbia. “Phase Two Guidance Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19): General Guidance for the Public.” Effective June 22. Available at https://coronavirus.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/coronavirus/page_content/attachments/COVID-19_DC_Health_Guidance_for_General_Public_2020.06.17__FINAL.pdf.

[5] As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “If everyone wears a cloth face covering when out in public…the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19) can be reduced for the community.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/fs-Important-information-cloth-face-covering.pdf.

[6] Maragakis, M.D, M.P.H., L. “I've Been Diagnosed With the New Coronavirus (COVID-19). What Should I Expect?.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Available at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/diagnosed-with-covid-19-what-to-expect.

[7] Peak, C. “Failing to Protect Black Lives: How Washington, D.C., mishandled its response to the coronavirus” American Public Media Reports, July 15, 2020. Available at https://www.apmreports.org/story/2020/07/15/washington-dc-response-to-coronavirus

[8] Id.

[9] Peak, C. “Investigation Uncovers Missteps in Washington, D.C.’s Coronavirus Response,” National Public Radio, July 15, 2020. Available at https://www.npr.org/2020/07/15/888945511/investigation-uncovers-missteps-in-washington-d-c-s-coronavirus-response?fbclid=IwAR3mVCgNkcTuExlgVunXdpO4B4NkXKlg2O1NSEHC0TyPAF18UchCBq2B_vI

[10] American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia and American Civil Liberties Union Analytics. “Racial Disparities in Stops by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department: Review of Five Months of Data.” June 16, 2020. Available at acludc.org/sites/default/files/2020_06_15_aclu_stops_report_final.pdf

[11] Government of the District of Columbia. “Public Safety Agency COVID-19 Case Data.” Updated July 14, 2020. Available at https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/public-safety-agency-covid-19-case-data.

[12] World Health Organization. “’Immunity passports’ in the context of COVID-19.” Scientific Brief. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/immunity-passports-in-the-context-of-covid-19.

[13] Id.

[14] Bates, J. “'We Cannot Police Our Way Out of a Pandemic.' Experts, Police Union Say NYPD Should Not Be Enforcing Social Distance Rules Amid COVID-19.” Times, May 7, 2020. Available at https://time.com/5832403/nypd-pandemic-police-social-distancing-arrests/.

[15] Hermann, P. “As stay-at-home order is extended, D.C. police say enforcing social distancing can be a struggle.” The Washington Post, May 15, 2020. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/as-stay-at-home-order-is-extended-dc-police-say-enforcing-social-distancing-can-be-a-struggle/2020/05/15/dd798fac-93ba-11ea-91d7-cf4423d47683_story.html.