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  • Robert J. Kane, PhD

I Just Returned from France: If I get COVID-19, I'll Thank the U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Updated: Apr 16, 2021


Policing is a social determinant of health. Plenty of research, including my own, has demonstrated that fact. When the police enter neighborhoods—particularly those characterized by social and economic vulnerabilities— the health behaviors and outcomes of local residents change, often for the worse.

So, what happens when the “neighborhood” is an international airport, the “police” are agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, and the “health outcome” is the risk of contracting COVID-19?

Forty-eight hours ago my wife and I flew from Paris into Newark Liberty International Airport. Predictably, the plane was relatively empty, though it still carried at least 100 passengers. We exited the aircraft at about 8:30pm; and from what I could tell, ours was the only flight that had recently arrived at Terminal B, Newark’s primary international terminal.

Airport personnel led us into the passport control hall, where EMTs took our temperature but recorded nothing on the "United States Health Declaration" forms we were required to fill out on the airplane. We were then packed person-to-person in a line that snaked across multiple successive lanes before funneling down to just four passport control booths, each staffed by a single CBP agent. There was zero social-distancing; it seemed that no one was in charge; and at any given moment, only two of the booths were actually processing people because agents were regularly stepping away to escort people who seemed to lack proper documentation to another screening area. And so there we stood, our “community” of about 100 people, for over an hour, inching our way toward passport counters that were only about half-operational. What fascinated me the most was that the CBP agents – and there were many – never appeared to give a second thought to the length and slowness of the line, or the extent to which we were packed like sardines in a can. In that moment, CBP was our police force, we were residents of a vulnerable community, and the way CBP was deployed had definitely affected our health behaviors—if not our health outcomes (time will tell).

Despite the seemingly endless news stories about Coronavirus, the drastic measures several governors around the country have taken to slow the spread of the virus, and the seemingly chaotic response of our federal government, life in our little neighborhood of Terminal B at Newark Liberty was not chaotic. It was business as usual. And that’s the problem. There was no plan for us, no measures to ensure that CBP promoted health, rather than compromised it.

As we finally came within visual range of our designated booth, Anne-Marie (my wife) and I watched as the CBP agents instructed select individuals to place their fingers onto a glass scanner to be imaged. No hand sanitizer and no sanitized wipes between the finger print scans. Just passenger after passenger pressing their fingers onto a glass screen that countless people before them had also touched. When we reached the booth, Anne-Marie – a registered nurse and PhD-trained university professor – gently suggested to the CBP agent that it might be a good idea to disinfect the screen between passengers. He offered a patronizing smile, pulled a bottle of hand sanitizer from under the counter, and asked if she wanted “a squirt.” Not exactly what she had in mind.

Once through that screening, we collected our luggage, but were then forced again to queue up in a long line to hand our customs declaration forms to another set of CBP agents. As with the previous line, this one included no social distancing measures; and no one seemed to be particularly in charge.

As a private citizen, I was outraged. As a policing scholar, I was horrified.

Our experience at Liberty demonstrated a total gap in our nation’s public health surveillance and intervention infrastructure. Customs and Border Patrol agents should have taken a public health approach to our repatriation process at Liberty. They should have known our plane was landing, should have set up the lines so that the lanes were at least 6 feet apart, and should have enforced social distancing measures. They were the thin blue line that was supposed to be protecting the United States from the community spread of COVID-19. And yet, for the most part, those agents barely looked up when we all arrived.

Business as usual will not cut it in a slow disaster, such as this pandemic. We live in a world where police agencies use license plate readers and facial recognition cameras to both track our movements and surveil public places. Some police agencies are even partnering with private data-mining companies to integrate seemingly unrelated databases for the purposes of "predictive policing." American policing has developed a vast data collection, and database-linking, capacity that is virtually unrivaled. But they gather “big data” almost exclusively for enforcement and intelligence purposes.

They need to broaden their worldview.

Even beyond COVID-19, police should stop regarding themselves strictly as law enforcement and start recognizing that they are de facto members of the U.S. Public Health Service particularly the federal agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security. In adjusting their worldview, they will collect the same data on us that they collect now, but they will use it in much smarter ways. They will know when planes are coming in to international airports; they will know how many passengers are on those planes, and they will adjust their staffing and the configuration of the passport control lines in ways that maximize social distancing and health behaviors. In traditional neighborhoods, they’ll know who the vulnerable residents are, and they will keep track of them—not for “intel” reasons, but for those that promote health and well-being.

Policing is a social determinant of health. It doesn’t matter if those social settings are traditional neighborhoods or airports. And two nights ago, instead of offering hand sanitizer just to quiet a questioning nurse, the CBP agents should have offered leadership to slow the community spread of COVID-19 in a region that now represents the national epicenter of the pandemic.

Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: A 'New' Idea for a 21st Century Mandate (Wolters Kluwer), is due out in early 2022. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane


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