The NYPD Mocking Homeless People Is Exactly What's Wrong With America

Photo via Slate.com.
America’s faith in police officers is the lowest it has been in 22 years — and it's no wonder. The last year has been pocked with fatal encounters, particularly in vulnerable African-American communities, and it’s more clear than ever that institutional racism remains a hallmark of modern law enforcement.

But there’s another kind of ugliness at play in U.S. police departments — one characterized by a stunning lack of empathy for a group of people deeply in need of protection and care. The most bold-faced example we’ve come across in recent weeks is an NYPD police union that is collecting photos of homeless people throughout the city and uploading them to Flickr in an album titled, “Peek-A-Boo: We See You.”

The now-defunct collection featured the Big Apple’s most destitute citizens, sleeping in ragged, filthy blankets on sidewalks, or begging with upturned hands while their faces point towards the ground in shame. Other photos on the page showed one subject passed out on a makeshift bed made of pizza boxes. It was captioned “bed and breakfast.”

Though the stated purpose of the project, created and promoted by the Sergeants Benevolent Association, was to document the so-called decline of the city, an email detailing the original agenda felt more like a mean-spirited shaming of homeless people than a thoughtful look at the poverty spilling across the sidewalks in ironic proximity to staggering wealth.
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Reality check: People don’t panhandle or pee in public because it’s a more attractive option than the alternative.

“Please utilize your smartphones to photograph the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type,” SBA president Ed Mullins wrote in an email to members.

Mullins — an outspoken critic of Mayor de Blasio — told the New York Post the initiative was intended to shine a light on two years of “failed policies, more homeless encampments on city streets, a 10% increase in homicides, and the diminishing of our hard-earned and well-deserved public perception of the safest large city in America.”

What’s clear here is that Mullins and the SBA members who contributed photos to this album were more concerned with the way that New York City is perceived than with the people struggling to survive on its streets. No doubt the media attention aimed at this insensitivity ultimately caused the organization to remove these offensive photographs and dial down its public presence. The problem is that these people deemed it appropriate to document and then mock the impoverished in the first place.

What the Sergeants Benevolent Association suggested is that the poorest among us deserve our derision.

Reality check: People don’t panhandle or pee in public because it’s a more attractive option than the alternative. They do it because they have to. Yes, some of New York’s homeless are addicted to drugs and alcohol, but it’s worth noting that those are hard habits to kick when you don't have financial resources and a support system behind you — never mind the fact that NYC (and most of America) lacks comprehensive treatment programs aimed at breaking the cycle of addiction, beyond criminalizing users.

Perhaps the most offensive phrase from Mullin’s original missive was the one that highlighted “quality-of-life offenses.” It’s clear what he’s getting at: The homeless population — the stench of unwashed bodies, the space they take up while napping in subway stations, and whatever else might shock a person otherwise unaccustomed to such confrontation with real-world problems — compromises the experience of NYC for people confronted with the sight of suffering.

No wonder Americans don't trust the police. What the SBA suggests is that the poorest among us deserve our derision. With protectors like these, who needs enemies?
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