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Defending Vagrant Led to Backlash, Officer Says

August 06, 2004|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — A police officer on trial for refusing to arrest a homeless man took the stand Thursday, saying he was punished for trying to help needy people instead of locking them up.

Officer Eduardo Delacruz could be kicked off the police force if an administrative judge finds him guilty of failing to obey a lawful order. He refused to arrest a homeless man who had been sleeping in a Manhattan parking garage in 2002.

"I'm not going to do it," Delacruz recalled telling a sergeant who had handcuffed the man and told the officer to make the arrest. "I'm not going to lock up a homeless man."

Delacruz, 39, has drawn support from homeless advocates who portray him as a conscientious objector to a crackdown on the city's dispossessed. The officer, who has a clean disciplinary record, suggested he was motivated by religion.

"God is in control," the 10-year veteran said during the departmental hearing when asked what he was thinking at the time.

In closing arguments, New York Police Department lawyer David Green argued that a law enforcement organization relied on a strict chain of command.

Clearing Delacruz would send the message that "any police officer could choose to follow whatever order he wants -- a very dangerous position to take," Green said.

In 1997, Delacruz volunteered for a homeless outreach unit charged with directing homeless people to city shelters. But in 2002, police shifted to a zero-tolerance stance on trespassing and other minor crimes committed by vagrants found on streets or in the subway system.

"We had been trying to help and protect these people," Delacruz said. "Now we were going after them."

Delacruz said his superiors sought to impose a one-arrest-per-week quota. They warned that if he didn't make arrests he could be transferred to a distant command, or worse.

Green recommended that if Delacruz were found guilty, he should receive a 30-day suspension without pay -- a penalty he's already served. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who has the final say, would still have the authority to dismiss him.

A decision is expected in several weeks.

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