After a handful of high-profile murders in the city’s homeless shelters and a lengthy review of the shelter system by city officials, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that he’s asking the New York Police Department to step in.
The police aren’t going to show up at shelter sites — at least not yet — but will take on a training and advisory role with the separate standing police force of the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
NYPD officers will immediately begin re-training that 465-member force, said Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks. Banks is currently doing double-duty as Commissioner of DHS after Gilbert Taylor resigned from the post in December, the second such resignation in less than four months. The retraining is only one piece of the police department’s new involvement with Banks’ security forces.
“We’re very grateful that the NYPD will be sending a management team to develop an action plan to upgrade security in the shelters and retrain DHS police officers,” Banks said Tuesday at a press conference with NYPD Chief of Department James O’Neill.
Neither man could provide specific information about the training DHS’s police will receive because the curriculum for the three- and five-day courses is still being compiled, O’Neill said. City Hall officials declined to say whether the training would emphasize the use of physical force or softer police skills around conflict resolution. The city has also not specified whether DHS cops might be armed if the NYPD management team recommends it, though O’Neill noted some DHS supervisors already carry tasers.
City hall insists it isn’t moving to put cops in shelters. But Banks would not rule out the possibility in the future, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The city’s insistence that police in homeless shelters isn’t part of the plan is cold comfort for people like Al Williams, a member of Picture the Homeless who is helping pursue civil rights and housing law cases against the city on behalf of himself and other unsheltered New Yorkers. Williams, 46, has been in hotel rooms and city shelters since Hurricane Sandy destroyed the apartment he shared with his partner.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the training policy announced Tuesday could eventually bring cops into shelters, Williams told ThinkProgress.
“Once this is implemented, and then another incident occurs and someone gets seriously hurt or murdered, what’s going to be done then?” Williams said. “It doesn’t take much to murder someone, and they’re talking about most of it is domestic violence. A man and a woman in a room, he doesn’t need a weapon for that.”
Even if the police never become directly involved at shelter sites, the idea that DHS staff will be taking pointers from Commissioner Bill Bratton’s officers is hard to stomach for Picture the Homeless director Lynn Lewis.
“Our concern with police training peace officers is how the NYPD views homeless people, how they treat folks,” Lewis told ThinkProgress. “We have video of them kicking people and throwing their stuff in the garbage. Is that the kind of expertise they’re going to be bringing to this training?”
In addition to the still-unspecific retraining curriculum, NYPD is sending an unspecified “management team” to DHS to help develop a plan for improving security at its facilities. At press time, neither the mayor’s office nor the NYPD had not responded to questions about who the department will assign to that team or what experiences they will bring to the process.
Banks also announced Tuesday that DHS will reform its tracking of security incidents and revive a program for managing domestic violence episodes inside shelters.
“There was an effective program that had been in place until 2010 that was eliminated,” Banks said, referring to cuts made by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) as part of a broad pullback on public services that incensed homelessness advocates and drove a boom in the unsheltered population.
“We are restoring that program to provide outreach and additional training in the family shelter system operated by DHS to address domestic violence,” Banks said Tuesday, noting that four out of five critical security incidents in those adult shelters involves domestic violence. DHS staff will get new training on intimate partner violence and shelter residents “not identified with intimate partner violence but experiencing unhealthy relationships and conflict will be offered referral to supportive services,” according to a release from de Blasio’s office.
Despite the spotty relationship between NYPD and New York City’s homeless, Tuesday’s announcement was met warmly by one prominent advocate, Coalition for the Homeless President and prominent Bratton critic Mary Brosnahan. “We welcome the uniform standards of professionalism NYPD training can bring to frontline security officers in NYC shelters,” Brosnahan said in a statement released by de Blasio’s office.
That perspective baffles Picture the Homeless director Lewis, who stressed her organization is the only homelessness advocacy group led by actual homeless New Yorkers.
“I’ve been dismayed that advocacy groups in New York haven’t spoken out more about the treatment of homeless people by NYPD,” Lewis said. “Everyone wants to be safe. But the police do not make everyone safe.”
“The NYPD has a record of abusive policing and [Commissioner Bratton] has a record of targeting homeless people. We witnessed this throughout the summer and into the fall,” she added. The area around Picture the Homeless’ offices in East Harlem was targeted for sweeps by police and outreach workers last summer ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the area. But Lewis’ members say the policy presence has only intensified since then.
Williams acknowledged he has been alarmed by lax security work by DHS officers and private security guards hired to assist at the shelters. But he sees more at work here than simple concern for the safety of New York’s shelter population.
“With gentrification rapidly approaching this area, the commissioner and the mayor used the pope’s visit as an opportunity to crack down,” Williams said. “They throw away people’s ID, their medicines, family pictures that are irreplaceable. That’s what we ‘ve been fighting against and it just seems like a test run for what may happen in all areas that are soon to be gentrified.”
The site police cleared before the papal visit is beneath the train station at East 125th St and Park Avenue. There’s an effort underway to rebrand the area as Upper Grand Central Station, Williams said, as part of the marketing for a new luxury high-rise going up a block east at 125th and Lexington.
“Something like 700 units, I think 70 of them are supposed to be ‘affordable housing’,” Williams said with a bleak chuckle. ‘Affordable’ in this context means many thousands of dollars beyond the reach of the people being displaced by the post-pope crackdown in East Harlem, the definition set in de Blasio’s controversial affordable housing law.
“It’s not so much painful as it is frustrating,” Williams said. “We have this system in place that they spend so much money to shelter the homeless, when the real issue is permanently housing the homeless.”