From California to Florida, law enforcement agencies throughout the country have come right out and stated: We are not enforcing your mandatory face mask order.

This stance is more common among sheriffs than police chiefs because sheriffs are elected. As elected officials, they have the authority to make such declarations. Police chiefs answer to mayors and city councils and generally do not have that kind of authority. While a few have gone out on a limb and ignored recently passed ordinances at the risk of losing their jobs, I believe that most would decline mask enforcement if they felt they could.

Why? Are these all right-wing ideologues who believe forcing citizens to wear masks violates our constitutional rights? Or are they head-in-the-sand conspiracy theorists who would deny science and Anthony Fauci? They are neither.

Whatever their political beliefs or views on masks may be, law enforcement leaders are not policymakers. They are implementers — the ones who must take the policies that are handed to them and figure out how to make them work. More importantly, they are the people who are responsible for protecting their citizens as well as the men and women they lead.

The officials who enact mask policies, as well as many citizens, think that enforcing mask orders is simple. It’s nothing like fighting “real” crime, and much like enforcing seat belt laws — or so they believe.

They do not recognize, nor try to understand, some issues that complicate enforcement of this mandate at this time in our history. 

First, enforcing masks is not simple from an operational standpoint. When you tell all men, women and children in your constituency to wear masks every moment they are in a business, workplace or public place, enforcement becomes an impossible juggernaut for law enforcement officers. There simply aren’t enough sworn personnel for effective enforcement, and the policymakers aren’t funding up law enforcement budgets to allow for additional resources.

To the contrary, some have already defunded their police or are considering it. However, by passing mask orders they are forcing law enforcement to deal with yet another social issue, along with the many others it has inherited over time. This directly contradicts the concept of defunding police and shifting responsibility for social issues to better trained social service agencies.

In addition, emotions about police are super-charged. If a person mistrusts police, identifies strongly with the defunding movement and believes traditional law enforcement should stay out of the lives of private citizens, how is he or she going to feel about being issued a citation, by a uniformed officer, for not wearing a mask? 

There are just as many who believe mandating masks is government overreach and a direct violation of their constitutional rights. In Stillwater, Oklahoma the city council had to rescind a mask ordinance because employees of restaurants and other businesses were threatened with violence when they asked patrons to comply with the local mask order. 

Finally, there is the fear factor. Taking the recommended precautions is important. However, the fear of contagion has contributed to a snitch culture. During Florida’s shutdown in March, we were flooded with citizen contacts — including calls to 911 — reporting people walking on the beach and not social distancing. This is not a good use of law enforcement resources.

We are seeing signs that enforcement isn’t going well in many places where police have been charged with forcing compliance. Many are handling it poorly, which isn’t surprising; police are not trained to handle this contentious issue that involves health, ethics and politics. Citizens aren’t handling it well either. There are numerous stories of arguments and even shootings resulting from mask disagreements.

Our country is at a flashpoint. Emotions are boiling and masks have become more than safety items or personal protective equipment; they are symbols of our core beliefs, worn on our faces — or not. For this reason, enforcing mask orders is not like enforcing seatbelt or helmet laws. Making law enforcement officers do this work is placing them at the very center of one of the most explosive social issues in decades, and one they are ill-equipped to handle. 

I believe that widespread mask use will help flatten the curve. I’m confident there are other law enforcement leaders who feel the same. Regardless of their personal opinions on masks, most know that making officers enforce mask orders will not result in the social and behavioral changes policymakers want. It is another mandate placed on police — like dealing with homeless people and those who are mentally ill — that isn’t a good solution and is often underfunded. Like those issues, mask enforcement may create unintended and undesirable consequences. 

Sheriff Tom Knight is a three-term elected sheriff in Sarasota County, Florida and serves as Secretary of the Florida Sheriff’s Association

Published on Jul 30, 2020