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Why are New York cops shaming homeless people?

The police union is turning quality of life into a political battle

August 16, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last week the New York Police Department sergeants’ union inserted itself into local politics yet again when it urged its members and supporters to document the declining quality of life in the city by taking pictures and videos of homeless people, panhandlers and low-level drug dealers and posting them on its Flickr page.

This public posting of photos and videos has sparked popular outcry and criticism. In response, the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) has insisted on the value of the project:

The SBA’s recent posting of photographs of homeless people on the Flickr social networking site was in no way intended to demean or humiliate one of the city’s most vulnerable populations. The motivation for posting those photos, as well as photos of people engaged in criminal activity and quality of life offenses, was to illuminate the increasing sense of frustration among residents, workers and visitors to the city and to hold elected officials and purported civic leaders accountable for the diminishing quality of life in all five boroughs.

Despite this defense, the photos and videos were removed from Flickr on Friday. The SBA denied responsibility and objected to the move, saying, “The images were removed without our knowledge by Flickr for reasons we can only speculate on but add up to censorship at its worst.” The union promised that a website for the pictures was under construction and would launch soon.

While the images show symptoms of real problems that make life in cities more difficult for both those who are homeless and those who are not, the union’s actions were driven by the more cynical goals of resurrecting the widely discredited and deeply conservative broken-windows theory, pushing back against new accountability mechanisms and undermining the progressive politics of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For the last two decades, police in New York have enjoyed a favored position as back-to-back Republican mayors have positioned law enforcement as the driving force in restructuring social relations in the city. They have done this by embracing the broken-windows theory, which erroneously argues that aggressive crackdowns on minor legal violations leads to a general climate of civility and lawfulness despite quantitative and qualitative analyses that have shown the idea to be more myth than theory. Broken-windows policing is supposed to revitalize poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods by stopping, frisking and arresting hundreds of thousands of poor, young and homeless people — most of whom are nonwhite — for a variety of minor nuisance crimes, giving them life time arrest records and involving them in an increasingly unforgiving criminal justice system. 

If the SBA was serious about addressing the quality of life in the city, its members would have spoken out over the last 20 years as the number of homeless people consistently increased.

The police in New York worry that their prime position will be displaced by de Blasio’s proposals to replace some police functions with targeted programs to address the underlying causes of disorder without involving the criminal justice system. His administration has put more resources into community-based anti-violence initiatives, stopped arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, developed plans to keep juvenile offenders out of the court and jail systems and is putting together more meaningful services for homeless and mentally ill people so they don’t end up in the criminal justice system. All of this reduces the centrality of police in managing low-level crime and disorder problems.

The cops are also upset about a series of bills before the City Council that would enhance public accountability for their actions and discourage some of their more abusive tactics such as intimidating people into allowing searches of their person or vehicles in the absence of probable cause. They seem to think the homelessness campaign will illustrate recent attempts to reduce police power as enabling a public free-for-all in which homeless people are allowed to run amok in the streets. The truth is that aggressive quality of life policing has shown its ability to drive people out of public and into the jail system, but it has done nothing to improve their quality of life or reduce the level of homelessness.

Unfortunately, de Blasio has made himself vulnerable to these histrionic accusations because record numbers of people are homeless in the city and services for them, people with mental illness and people with substance abuse issues are clearly inadequate to meet demand. The mayor has called for more, but real improvements remain to be seen, especially in the area of supportive housing and safe haven shelters, which hold the best chances of getting people with serious mental health and substance use issues off the streets.

If the SBA was serious about addressing the quality of life in the city, its members would have spoken out over the last 20 years as the number of homeless people consistently increased. Their failure to do so may be tied to the fact that so many of the union’s members live in suburban counties rather than the city. They are essentially publicly degrading homeless people as a hammer to wield against a mayor they resent. And they’re doing it in the most callous way possible.

The irony is that de Blasio has done very little to directly undermine their position. This year, he authorized the hiring of 1,300 additional police officers. He has gone to great lengths to emphasize that he fully supports quality of life policing initiatives, including the deployment of more officers this summer to address low-level violations, all in keeping with the broken-windows theory that he explicitly supports.

This call to shock the public and embarrass the mayor is an ideological battle and an embarrassment. Police officers, like any other workers, have the right to organize themselves, and their union is not the only one to participate in politics. Still, the public, the media and politicians should judge the officers’ political actions critically, given their structurally powerful role.

And the police need to stop using vulnerable and disenfranchised people to make a political point. Groups like Picture the Homeless are documenting extensive abusive policing aimed at homeless people. Calls for more crackdowns — on homelessness, vagrancy and other minor crimes — will hurt the quality of life for all of us, not improve it. 

Alex S. Vitale is an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of “City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.” He is also a senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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