New York City Set Up a Tip Line For People to Report on Their Neighbors. It Did Not Go Well.

A sign on a New York City bike path reminds people to stay at least six feet apart.

A sign on a New York City bike path reminds people to stay at least six feet apart. John Nacion/STAR MAX/AP Photo


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The city encouraged residents to report people who aren't following social distancing protocols. They’ve also been flooded with memes, inappropriate photos, and thousands of false tips.

Whether it’s people standing too close together in a line, a grocery store crowded with shoppers, or a neighbor’s party, New York City officials want residents to report those who are violating social distancing protocols. They’ve made the process easy: snap a photo and text it to 311.

But what started out as a means of enforcing social distancing quickly devolved as online trolls and annoyed city residents flooded the tip line with pictures of male genitalia, memes, prank messages, and false information. The veritable tsunami of complaints, many of which compared Mayor Bill de Blasio to Hitler and the tip line to tactics used by Nazis to quell dissent, led to a temporary shut down of the 311 texting system last week as the city figured out how to respond, the New York Post reported.  

New York City, an epicenter of the virus, has 160,000 confirmed cases and 12,287 deaths, as of Monday morning. As the city struggles to contain the virus, new measures like the social distancing tip line have emerged as a possible way to ensure city residents are following rules meant to reduce the spread of the virus.

The tip line debuted on April 18, when de Blasio issued a call to action on Twitter, saying that New Yorkers have been doing “an amazing job” of social distancing, but some people still need reminding. “We still know there’s some people who need to get the message. And that means sometimes making sure the enforcement is there to educate people and make clear we’ve got to have social distancing,” the mayor said. “Sending that photo in is going to help make sure that people are kept apart, and that’s going to stop the disease from spreading. And that’s going to save lives.”

Some called de Blasio a hypocrite and sent 311 screenshots of articles from mid-March, when the mayor went to the gym shortly after the city began to crack down on people gathering indoors. Others texted the number promising to “fight this tyrannical overreach!” Some accused de Blasio of creating a “snitch line,” to which he replied “this is not snitching, this is saving lives.”

The mayor then compared violating social distancing to suspicious behavior during war time. “When we were threatened with terrorism, no one doubted that it was right if you saw something to call it in immediately,” he said. “This is just the same reality, we just have a different enemy — an enemy you can’t see, but an enemy that has taken so many lives.”

The CDC recommends that people stay at least six feet apart from one another and wear masks when leaving the house for essential activities, two measures that decrease the likelihood that the virus will spread from one person to another.

As of Monday morning, police have responded to 20,805 tips of people standing too close to one another, according to 311 data. Of those, police determined that 10,847 of those cases showed “no evidence” of a social distancing violation, the alleged perpetrators were already gone, or police saw that action was “not necessary.” Police have made 11 arrests and issued 31 summonses. 

People that violate social distancing orders can face fines of up to $500. Repeat offenders could face fines up to $1,000. Police have been instructed to issue verbal warnings before escalating to citations or arrests.

When asked how the police department is responding to false tips, a representative of the New York City Police Department declined to comment, instead directing questions to city hall. 

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the tip line is part of the city’s broader strategy to combat the coronavirus. “We are using every tool in our arsenal to protect the health and safety of New Yorkers, and ensure they are following social distancing guidelines,” she said. “We review each complaint before dispatching any personnel for inspection, but encourage all New Yorkers to only send in legitimate complaints."

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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