Slap by Florida cop highlights need for homeless rights, say advocates

Rights groups call for end of criminalization of homeless in wake of video showing officer push, slap man

A video clip capturing the moment a Florida policeman appears to throws a homeless man to the ground before slapping him in the face highlights the need to end criminalization of the homeless, rights advocates said Tuesday.

Bruce Laclair, 58, was reportedly sleeping on a bench in a bus terminal near downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sunday when a police officer stopped him. Footage taken by a bystander of the incident shows Officer Victor Ramírez holding Laclair’s arm and then seemingly pushing him to the ground. The officer tells the man to stand before slapping him across the face.

On Monday, Ramírez was suspended on pay while Fort Lauderdale Police Department investigates the allegations.

Although shocking, the incident is not isolated and represents a wider problem with criminalization of the homeless, activists told Al Jazeera.

"We've heard over the last 20 years that that kind of thing happens," said Sean Cononie, founder of the advocacy group Homeless Voice. He said that Laclair’s alleged treatment was indicative of a city determined to rid itself of all homeless people. "They treat you like you're nothing but a piece of filth."

In a bid to safeguard against confrontation like that apparently captured on video in Florida, homeless advocates are campaigning for a bill called “Right to Rest” in several states legislatures. The measure would put an end to laws targeting people who sit, eat, sleep or stand in public places, according to Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a homeless people’s rights group.

The bill has already been introduced in Oregon and Colorado state legislature, and WRAP is looking for a state legislator to sponsor the bill in California.

Activists say such measures are needed to protect life-sustaining activities from over-zealous law enforcers.

“It doesn’t matter where you go. Everywhere you go you’re a broken window and cops need to get rid of you,” Boden said. “As a cop, if I see you in my town, and I don’t want people like you in my town, I’m going to use laws against standing, sitting, sleeping, eating — things we all do — to get you out of my town.”

As part of the campaign to support the Right to Rest bill, law students at the University of California, Berkeley recently released a report showing that municipal laws targeting the homeless are on the rise across the United States.

The surge in laws targeting life-sustaining activities in public followed significant cuts in federal funding for affordable housing which began in the early 1980s, the report showed.

Though such laws may have taken the “broken windows” policy — which aims to curtail serious offenses by aggressively policing small crimes — out of public view, they did nothing to help reduce homelessness. Criminal records are not helpful when trying to find a job or applying for housing, Boden said. 

“Homelessness isn’t a criminal justice issue … it about lack of housing not lack of cops,” Boden said.

With wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter