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Should I report my neighbour for breaking COVID rules?

Experts say COVID ‘snitching’ may do more harm than good

6 min read
caption Experts in sociology, criminology and psychology are doubtful that community 'snitching' is an effective inhibitor of COVID-19 spread.
Simon Smith

Jenn Kidson remembers the police cruiser pulling into the driveway of her son’s house in West Chezzetcook. It was last Sunday, 3 p.m., and her family had just had cake and watched a video they’d made together.

Kidson said when her son opened the door, the RCMP officer on the other side informed the family that a neighbour had reported a large gathering at the residence. Kidson and nine members of her family were celebrating her mother’s 60th birthday, within COVID restrictions, at the time.

“We laughed at the ridiculousness of it but, yeah, it was an uneasy feeling that a complete stranger took it upon themselves to police us,” Kidson wrote in a text message to The Signal.

Seeing no infractions, the officer apologized for the interruption and left, she said.

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After an extended period of relative calm, Nova Scotia is now facing a second wave of COVID-19 cases. The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, urges Nova Scotians to be “COVID guards” to prevent further spread of the virus in the community.

Multiple provinces and territories have implemented designated phone lines or web forms that enable citizens to report one another for breaking the rules. While Nova Scotia currently doesn’t have a designated line for COVID infractions, the Nova Scotia Health website advises citizens to report those who are “blatantly ignoring” the rules to the police.

But are snitch lines, designated or not, an effective tool in the fight against COVID-19?

Alex Luscombe, a criminology researcher at the University of Toronto, has his doubts.

As part of the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project, a Canadian data justice initiative, Luscombe and a small team of researchers have documented provinces and municipalities that have set up COVID snitch lines. The project also maps reported charges and enforcement related to COVID-19.

caption Policing the Pandemic has identified COVID-19 ‘snitch lines’ in the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick.
Policing the Pandemic Project

In most of the instances when people have received fines, Luscombe said in an interview, the perpetrators committed minor infractions like stepping on a patch of grass or sitting on a bench in a closed park.

“They aren’t the kind of highly egregious instances that people are imagining,” Luscombe said. He said stories of large house parties and people intentionally coughing on others aren’t as common as people think.

As of Nov. 12, police in Nova Scotia had issued at least 791 summary offence tickets, totalling $731,157.50, for failure to comply with sections of the Health Protection Act orders and the Emergency Management Act directive.

Nova Scotia RCMP received a total of 2,438 calls related to COVID-19 from March 1 to Oct. 31, an RCMP spokesperson said. This does not include calls made to municipal police departments like the Halifax Regional Police. A spokesperson for HRP said they could not immediately provide COVID-related call data.

A human rights-based approach to public health

Eric Mykhalovskiy, a professor of sociology at York University, is leery of the potential social implications of snitch lines. Mykhalovskiy’s article, Human rights, public health and COVID-19 in Canada, was published this fall in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

“This is a really troubling area,” Mykhalovskiy said in an interview. “I really think that people need to be very careful and think twice, three times or four times before they start engaging in this type of reporting of their neighbours or their fellow citizens.”

Mykhalovskiy said to limit the influence of biases, individuals should question their reasons for calling the police. He explained that the impact of this behaviour falls disproportionately on people who have traditionally been targeted by law enforcement.

“Poor people, racialized communities, drug-using communities, people who are homeless,” Mykhalovskiy said. “Those are the folks who are going to be subject to these types of snitching and reporting.”

What’s more, Mykhalovskiy said, is that snitch lines don’t promote the kind of “community trust and social cohesion” required during a public health crisis, adding that he hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest they are even an effective tool to dissuade rule-breakers.

Mykhalovskiy has conducted extensive research on the social and institutional impacts of public health crises. Much of his work in this area has been focused on HIV-AIDS. He said the public health response to COVID-19 is lacking the level of community innovation and intervention that was instrumental during the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

“Where’s all the fantastic messaging?” Mykhalovskiy asked. “The innovative, creative approaches to informing and educating people and encouraging them to engage in the activities that we know are the things that people need to do to keep themselves and their friends and family safe?”

Finding the right balance

Steve Joordens is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. In an interview, he said during the pandemic people are being asked to behave in a way that’s “completely unnatural for human beings in general.”

“When we feel stressed or threatened or anything like that, our go-to strategy is literally to be with other people and especially those closest to us,” Joordens said. “So, we’ve been denied that for a long, long time and now, I think we’re seeing a lot of cracks.”

These cracks or infractions, Joordens said, are natural responses to stress related to the new way of life brought on by COVID-19 restrictions. He said it’s also “perfectly understandable” that some people would feel the need to report that behaviour.

“I think if you if you feel the person fighting and trying to find a balance, their balance might not be your balance,” Joordens said. “Your balance may be the safest of all in terms of viral, physical health, but theirs could reflect the mental health needs that they have.”

Above all, Joordens said, it’s important for people to be understanding of what others might be going through during this time; if someone’s behaviour isn’t overtly against the rules, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt before involving the police.

Joordens said he hopes to see families coming together this winter, in a COVID-safe way, for fun outdoor activities, like hockey and tobogganing.

When to call the police

While Mykhalovskiy said that people have generally been too quick to turn to law enforcement, he recognizes that there are certain scenarios in which calling a snitch line may be warranted.

“The only circumstance which I could possibly imagine it potentially being useful is sort of large house parties that may continue to be happening,” Mykhalovskiy said.

“It could be useful for public health authorities to be aware because they can then engage in some education and contact tracing to try to ensure that there hasn’t been a local outbreak.”

Luscombe, the criminology researcher, supposed that a blatant violation, like intentionally coughing on someone, could require intervention by the police.

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About the author

Simon Smith

Simon Smith is a multimedia journalist with The Signal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is an avid traveller and is interested in local news, business,...

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  1. R

    Rina Cohen

    Snitching lines were commonly used by dictators in police states to help them rule over their citizens. It was, for example, common practice, as my parents told me, in Romania during Ceausescu's leadership and created a poisonous environment of chronic mistrust everywhere. There is no evidence that these measures enhance compliance with COVID restrictions. Rule breakers will continue to do it. We'll be better off managing this crisis using measures other than encouraging snitching.
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