Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

NYC’s homeless become ‘pawns’ in police union fight with mayor

Sergeants snap photos of homeless to shame de Blasio, but nobody wins, advocates say

New York City’s homeless have been caught up in a long-running feud between Mayor Bill de Blasio and a police union that is now encouraging members to take pictures of people committing quality-of-life crimes, such as sleeping on the street.

Seemingly intended to shame City Hall into cracking down on some of the New York’s most vulnerable citizens, the campaign represents a troubling breakdown of cooperation between the city’s political leaders and law enforcement, homeless advocates say. Moreover, they say it stands to help no one, least of all the homeless.

Meanwhile, for those targeted in the campaign, it is an invasion of privacy. “It’s not cool," said Justine Jackson, 60, who has suffered bouts of homelessness over the last four years. She was at Penn Station, a popular spot for the city’s homeless because of its public bathrooms and access to travelers’ spare change. “They shouldn’t take pictures of people without permission.”

Justine Jackson, 60, a disabled homeless woman, said she feels the SBA campaign violates the privacy of homeless people.
Wilson Dizard

Since Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) President Ed Mullins announced the campaign, called Peek-a-Boo, We See You Too, in a letter emailed to union members on Monday, hundreds of the photos have been posted on the union’s Flickr page. Most show homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, panhandling or committing other quality-of-life offenses.

“I don’t know what they want, except to embarrass the mayor,” said Joe Giacalone, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College and a New York Police Department veteran.

The SBA campaign comes just days after the city set aside $22 million for its NYC Safe scheme, which aims to train police for interactions with the mentally ill, to provide mental health care and to improve security conditions at shelters.

It also comes after months of bad blood between City Hall and police unions. The SBA and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) have expressed distrust in de Blasio since late last year, when union leaders felt the mayor sided with protesters decrying police violence against people of color.

In his letter Mullins slammed new City Council measures meant to keep track of police use of force, to require officers to obtain consent from people before searches and to ban chokeholds.

“No one seems to give any thought about an officer fighting for their life or pulling a deranged and dangerous person off an innocent crime victim,” he wrote.

The mayor on Monday dismissed the notion that his office is preventing police from doing their jobs. “With all due respect to any union representative, I listen to Commissioner [Bill] Bratton. That’s who’s running the NYPD,” de Blasio said.  

“We're going to have very consistent quality-of-life enforcement all over this city for any kind of offense,” he added. “And that includes if a homeless person commits it.”

Some of the hundreds of photographs sent to the SBA.
SBA via Flickr

While the very public spat plays out, the homeless have become a nonconsenting part of the debate, activists say.

“The union is using the homeless as pawns to support another agenda, saying, ‘You let us do overly aggressive policing or we’re going to become an out-of-control, blighted city like we were in the 1980s and 1990s,’” said William Burnett, a co-chairman of Picture the Homeless, a civil rights and housing advocacy group.

Burnett, who has experienced homelessness, said he believed New York has changed for the better over the last two decades, in part thanks to the work the NYPD did 20 years ago. But he added that the apparent success does not grant officers the right abuse citizens.

In his letter to members, Mullins doesn’t offer solutions to homelessness or suggestions for how police can help people living on the street. He didn’t return multiple requests for comment from Al Jazeera. But others say a different tack is necessary if relations between officers and members of the city’s homeless community are to improve.

DeLacy Davis, the head of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability and a retired 20-year veteran of the Orange County, New Jersey, police force, said the SBA was wrong to politicize policing of the homeless. 

While the union has a responsibility to advocate for its members’ safety and pay, they shouldn’t “do it on the backs of the homeless or groups in the community that can’t defend themselves,” he said. “It’s just the wrong fight.”

To help the homeless, he said, officers need to get to know the people who are on their beat and respond with the reflex of helping, not punishing. This is especially true for the homeless who are mentally ill, he said.

“Consider a naked man yelling in street, cursing and screaming. Well, he is naked. But there is no reason for me to shoot him,” Davis said. “I can see he’s not a threat to me from a distance.”

But Burnett doesn’t trust police to do the right thing.

“If they post pictures of vulnerable homeless people on the Internet, that reflects a real contempt on their part,” he said. “Would you trust somebody that has that much contempt to act in good faith?”

At Penn Station, Jackson said she would like to see officers provide direction to resources from the city, acting more as social workers than bullies. 

Ernest Kimble, a 57-year-old homeless person, suggested officers should approach them with food rather than cameras if they want to improve relations.

"Maybe they could hand out sandwiches to us," he said.

Related News

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