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Bloomington police defend decision to not wear masks on job, say mask mandate doesn’t apply



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Bloomington Police Department officers are seen arresting a citizen Aug. 21 while not wearing face coverings. BPD defended its decision to not mandate face coverings despite the coronavirus pandemic and statewide mask mandate. Courtesy Photo

Despite state and local mask mandates, a Bloomington police spokesperson said officers do not have to wear masks when working outside, while alone in their patrol vehicles or if they need to “take quick action.”

Monroe County’s mask mandate, which has been in effect for more than a month, requires people to wear a face covering if they’re not at home or in outdoor situations where physical distancing of at least 6 feet isn’t possible.

Growing research shows wearing face coverings is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. But police have been widely documented not wearing masks across the country, especially when patrolling large racial justice protests throughout the summer. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb's mask mandate does not specifically say whether law enforcement officers are exempt. A Bloomington spokesperson declined to comment.

In this video submitted to the Indiana Daily Student by Patrick Saling, a Bloomington police officer is shown not wearing a mask while conducting an arrest. In the video, another officer also says that he does not believe wearing masks helps with coronavirus prevention.

IU senior Patrick Saling was walking around near Third Street and North Indiana Avenue early Friday morning when he saw police arresting a young man who appeared to be intoxicated. Saling, an activist who works with local services for people experiencing homelessness, started recording. He said he videos police whenever he sees them interacting with the public. 

Saling challenged one officer, who was sitting alone in his cruiser, on whether he wears a mask while transporting people who have been arrested. The officer said he doesn’t wear a mask because he doesn’t like it. 

“If it makes you feel better, that’s fine,” the officer can be heard saying in the video. “I’m just saying, it’s not prohibiting you from getting coronavirus.” 

Bloomington Police Department Capt. Ryan Pedigo said questioning the officer violated Indiana law that prevents people from interfering with a law enforcement officer while they’re working.

“It is very clear that the person who sent the video was attempting to bait the officers involved into a confrontation,” Pedigo said in an email. 

In another video from the same night, an unmasked officer administered a sobriety test to a man sitting in the police car, talking to him from less than 6 feet away. A second officer, who wore a face covering, stood to the side. 

The man blew, and after trying incorrectly, the officer demonstrated how to take the test, blowing air toward the man in the car.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that spreads via droplets traveling through the air. It primarily spreads person to person.

So when police interact with young people — who’ve been seen at crowded parties without masks over the past week — they could be exposed to virus droplets before moving on to the next call. Because police encounter multiple people each day, including people experiencing homelessness who might not have access to face coverings, they could drive the spread of the coronavirus, Saling said. 

“The police officers are going to be the interlocutors, or the in between, between our marginalized communities that we know are particularly vulnerable through this virus, and the folks that their privilege allows them to disregard the risks of this virus,” he said. 

Saling had seen police not wearing masks earlier this month and in April, so he wasn’t surprised to see them again this week. 

“It’s frustrating,” Saling said. “It’s infuriating.” 

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