NYPD to vastly expand controversial role in homeless shelter security

Force’s oversight team will jump from 3 officials to 22 as homelessness agency’s own security forces expand.

NYPD officers pass a homeless woman while patrolling the subway system in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
NYPD officers pass a homeless woman while patrolling the subway system in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Nine months after Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) assigned New York City cops to redesign security procedures in the city’s vast network of homeless shelters, city officials are doubling down.

De Blasio’s move came after multiple killings inside of city shelters made headlines last winter. In March, he announced that Department of Homeless Services (DHS) peace officers would be placed under NYPD supervision.

Three department officials were in charge of that liaison and retraining work on a temporary basis. The program will become permanent and expand to include a full 22 NYPD officers, the city announced Friday.

Last year’s move prompted concern from homelessness advocates who monitor police interactions with the city’s indigents, who point to patterns of harassment and civil rights abuses of homeless people by NYPD officers around the city.

City leaders stressed that uniformed police would not be serving inside shelters themselves, but instead taking over responsibility for re-training the DHS security force and the hundreds of other private security guards the city hires to manage a fluctuating, often ad-hoc web of temporary shelter spaces.

But even if NYPD officers aren’t physically entering shelters, any new emphasis on arrests at shelters threatens to further dissuade people stuck on the street from seeking space in the crowded, stressful environments the city is able to provide. Police-style practices from DHS staff could eventually mean that homeless people view shelters themselves as an extension of the police and the jail system.

There are no statistics available from the city as yet on how the NYPD training program has changed the experience inside of shelters. But officials said Friday that an expanded and retrained DHS security force has meant “an increase in arrests that have resulted in less violent acts.”

The biggest shift from the training involves screening procedures for contraband and weapons in the shelter system, NYPD Deputy Chief Edward Thompson indicated, while acknowledging the lack of data. “I can’t talk to stats specifically, but I think we’re seeing a lot more arrests, apprehensions, seizing of illicit things coming into the shelter,” Thompson told Gothamist on Friday. “The more illegal items or controlled items we apprehend before they get into the system, the better environment the clients are in.”

Police practices and methods have a more complicated effect on homeless people’s lives than what Friday’s press statements portray. Non-profit coalition Picture the Homeless has sued the city and the police for targeting homeless people on the streets and for destroying their property.

When de Blasio’s team first announced the NYPD’s role in shelter security last year, Picture the Homeless’ Lynn Lewis told ThinkProgress the department’s behavior on the street should make people nervous about the idea of transplanting NYPD practices to the shelter system.

“Our concern with police training peace officers is how the NYPD views homeless people, how they treat folks,” Lewis said at the time. “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?”