Montrealer Miku Smeets says it’s insulting to see city police officers not wearing masks when detaining or arresting people outdoors.
Given the fact Montreal has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, Smeets said he thinks police not wearing masks when in physical contact with someone shows a lack of respect for the public.
“It’s demonstratively insulting,” Smeets said in a recent phone interview, adding he’s seen maskless officers in the city engage people on two occasions.
A June study from researchers at University of Ottawa and University of Toronto revealed that between April 1 and June 15, Quebec police distributed 77 per cent of the $13 million in COVID-related fines issued by police across Canada. That statistic leads Smeets and other Montrealers to accuse police of not just being offensive but hypocritical.
“That’s the ultimate irony of the situation here,” Montreal resident Ian Capstick said. The people who are handing out fines across the city, he said, “often aren’t taking the precautions that they should be.”
Capstick, a former political commentator, said he regularly sees police officers in his neighbourhood not wearing masks when standing close to each other and to members of the public.
Montreal police say they are following recommendations from health authorities. Issued in mid-June, the recommendations don’t require police wear masks outdoors during “brief interventions” where they’re within two meters of an individual for fewer than 15 minutes.
On Monday, Quebec’s health ministry said those recommendations are still in effect.
But Montreal’s police force says even when an officer is in contact with a person for more than 15 minutes, wearing a mask isn’t always possible. “It could happen that in certain circumstances where public safety is threatened, the police officer will prioritize a rapid intervention and put their mask on later,” a police spokesperson said in an email.
At a recent press conference announcing an operation aimed at ensuring bars and restaurants were enforcing COVID-19 health rules, Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron said the force is constantly reminding its officers to wear masks.
While some police departments in the United States order officers to wear masks whenever they interact with the public, Canada’s largest police departments do not.
Constable Tania Visintin, a Vancouver police spokeswoman, said officers are asked to use personal protective equipment such as masks “when it is operationally feasible and they cannot practice physical distancing.”
RCMP spokeswoman Catherine Fortin said its members “can use” non-medical masks on duty and that “RCMP commanding officers determine their requirements based on the direction of their local health authority and will distribute masks accordingly.”
Calgary police said their members are encouraged to wear masks when interacting with members of the public. There are times, however — such as when police are engaging an agitated person — that wearing a mask wouldn’t be appropriate, the force said.
Toronto police officers have been “reminded” of procedures for wearing personal protective equipment and “when operationally possible, to don a mask or facial covering when physical distancing is not possible,” said spokesperson Connie Osborne.
Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said that in general, “masks should be worn at times when you can’t completely respect physical distancing.”
But it does take time for the virus to spread, he said. Health authorities across Canada have estimated that someone has to be within two meters of another person for 10 to 15 minutes to spread the disease.
Oughton, however, said that due to the unpredictable nature of police work, it “might make sense for them to be wearing masks before an urgency arises.”
Seeing police wear masks could also help dispel myths that masks can deprive the body of oxygen, he said, adding it could reinforce “the message that masks are important.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.
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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press