Public Health

As I write this, the official American death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic nearing 700,000 people and the number of excess deaths (the historic measure of pandemics) in the US is likely over 1 million. That makes this the deadliest pandemic in more than a century — surpassing the American death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic. On September 20, 1 in every 61 Athens County residents suffered from an active COVID infection, and to date the virus has claimed the lives of 65 local residents.

In comparison, Athens Countians who lost their lives to violent crime during that same period is in the single digits. And compared to the 345,323 American lives lost to COVID-19 in 2020, 94% fewer Americans (21,570) died by homicide in 2020.

Athens was the first statutory city in Ohio to pass a local mask mandate. Judging from my own experience traveling outside of Athens, we had a much higher rate of mask usage than cities without a local mandate. However, the reality was that our mask mandate was a simply a suggestion, because it was not ever enforced.

Here in Athens we spend an unusually high amount of money on policing — significantly more than the per capita spending figure for our state as a whole. The Athens Police Department’s budget (including APD Parking Enforcement) is typically over $5 million per year, and the OUPD budget is nearly as much. That’s $10 million per year on just two departments whose jurisdictions are limited to a city of less than 24,000 people during the school year, and likely less than half that number over the summer. And Athens residents also help fund the county sheriff’s office and the Ohio State Highway Patrol, both of which have stations located in our city (or, in the case of OSHP, on the edge of city limits). Yet none of that money helped protect us from the pandemic. Indeed, as late as July of last year, APD officers weren’t even wearing masks themselves.

And indeed, police are the wrong people to enforce public health orders. As the American Prospect reported last summer,

In New York, 80 percent of the people arrested for violating social-distancing policies between March 17 and May 4 were African American. In a two-month period in Chicago, all the arrests and the majority of citations involved Latinos or African Americans. Across Ohio, black residents were over four times more likely than white residents to be charged with violating stay-at-home.

There is reason to suspect we’d see the same disproportionate enforcement of public health orders by police here in Athens. According to Athens County Copwatch’s investigation last summer of 5 years of Athens Police Department records, APD uses force against Black people at 2.6 times the rate the department uses force against white people while also disproportionately subjecting Black people to traffic stops and arrests. And despite Athens City Council declaring systemic racism a “public health crisis” in its unanimously passed June 2020 resolution, Council and the city administration continue to refuse to conduct their promised racial equity review of city policing — a refusal which itself is an example of the very systemic racism the resolution condemned!

Furthermore, last April APD cited 4 OU student tenants for violating Ohio’s stay-at-home order by having porch parties, but that same month when Athens landlord Bryan Wharton entered his tenants’ homes without 24 hours advance notice (legally required even when not in the midst of a statewide stay-at-home order) and without wearing a mask or any other PPE, in an incident photographed by the tenants (including a photo showing Wharton giving his outraged tenants the middle finger) and documented by the Athens News, the landlord Wharton (whose father, John Wharton, also a landlord, is one of the mayor’s biggest donors) faced no legal repercussions.

Yet in the overwhelming majority of cases, we would not need heavily-armed police officers with well-documented race and class biases to enforce a mask ordinance or other public health orders. The Athens City-County Health Department and Athens City Code Enforcement Office are both legally empowered to issue citations and civil fines — and fines (proceeded by formally documented warnings) could be used to increase compliance with the city mask mandate and other public health orders to further limit the virus’ spread and to save local lives.

The problem is that we spend too much money on policing and nowhere near enough on public health. As a result, the health department and code enforcement office are both woefully understaffed. While APD and OUPD together employ roughly 50 officers, Athens Code Enforcement currently employs just 3 rental housing inspectors and the city-county health department employs just 4 health inspectors. And both agencies operate with a small fraction of the budget we allocate to policing. For example, the Code Enforcement office’s annual budget is usually about $500,000 — one tenth of APD’s budget, and one twentieth of the budgets of APD and OUPD combined. This is simply an severely inefficient allocation of resources that’s terribly out of whack with the actual needs of our community.

Roughly 80% of city residents reside in rental housing, much of it terribly run-down, poorly insulated and weatherized, and suffering from hazardous mold problems and pest infestation. Our county as a whole has the worst housing problems in the entire state of Ohio. On top of that, we’re still in the midst of the most deadly pandemic in more than a century. To improve the health, safety and quality of life for Athens residents, we need to stop spending all our money on policing and start behaving rationally. We need to start shifting more resources to the health department and code enforcement.

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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane