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Photo of N.Y. cop aiding homeless man draws bittersweet reaction

November 29, 2012|By Matt Pearce

A photograph of New York Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo giving boots to a barefoot homeless man has gone viral, getting more than 400,000 "likes" on the department's Facebook page and a wave of positive media attention.

The New York Times reported that DePrimo bought a $75 pair of all-weather boots for the man in Times Square, where the officer was working on a counter-terrorism detail, and helped him put them on.

The picture was taken by Jennifer Foster, the communications director for the Public Safety Communications Division of the Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff's Office. She was visiting Times Square when she saw the homeless man begging for change.

"Right when I was about to approach, one of your officers came up behind him," she wrote in an email to the New York Police Department that it posted with the image on Facebook. "The officer said, 'I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let’s put them on and take care of you.’

"The officer squatted down on the ground and proceeded to put socks and the new boots on this man. The officer expected NOTHING in return and did not know I was watching."

A heartwarming story, but some of New York City's homeless and homeless advocates are not so impressed.

A quick Google search tells the (previously viral) tales: The NYPD's public history with the homeless hasn't been that friendly.

There was the October video of the NYPD cop pummeling a homeless youth who was trying to sleep in a Crown Heights youth center. Then there was the homeless man who says police violently threw him to the ground after handcuffing him, and the off-duty judge who witnessed the June incident saying he got karate-chopped in the throat.

In addition, for decades the NYPD flagrantly abused a loitering law to unconstitutionally arrest the homeless in a manner "offensive to the rule of law," a federal judge ruled in 2010. State courts struck down those laws in 1983 and 1988, but the NYPD continued the arrests until U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin held the city in contempt for "obstinance and uncooperativeness" in her April 2010 opinion. In February, the city reached a $15-million class-action settlement with 22,000 people who had been illegally arrested under the law. 

That history tends to color the homeless advocates' less-than-charitable reaction to the NYPD's celebration of DePrimo's charity. 

“I think what this guy did was in a spirit of genuine compassion and, I think, a real contrast with Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg’s failed policies over the past decade," said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the New York-based Coalition for the Homeless. “Look, since the [Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani years, the word to police officers is, 'Find any excuse to roust the homeless. Issue them tickets, arrest them, move 'em on.' That’s been the message. And we’ve had a few instances of officers very courageously standing up to that kind of brutal and uncaring policy that essentially criminalizes people’s poverty and homelessness.”

Markee cited NYPD Officer Eduardo Delacruz, who faced charges from his own department in 2003 for refusing to arrest a homeless man sleeping in a parking garage at a time of sharp increases in homeless arrests due to city crackdowns. 

The NYPD's history with the homeless had Raul Rodriguez of Picture the Homeless -- a New York advocacy group led by the homeless -- doubting the picture's veracity.

“This is Times Square, you understand?" Rodriguez said. "And because of all the big people who work in Times Square, the Police Department around that area are very, very particular on who hangs out in Times Square. They will make you move right quick because they don’t want people like us hanging around."

He added, "That picture gives the impression the whole department is compassionate. It’s not like that."

The image of a police officer helping a homeless man struck some advocates as running against the grain of city policies both in New York City and in the rest of the nation that aim to "sweep homelessness out of view," said Heather Maria Johnson, a civil rights attorney for the Washington-based National Law Center for the Homeless.

National prohibitions on panhandling and sleeping in public have increased 7% and 10% respectively over the last three years, Johnson said. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless at shelters has increased 50% during Bloomberg's term.

Markee said little had changed between the homeless and the NYPD since Giuliani's threats to arrest anybody police caught sleeping on the streets.

“It was a really moving photo and a moving story," Markee said, "and a stark contrast to a mayor who has largely ignored the homeless crisis that has spiraled out of control on his watch."

Tweeting DePrimo's story Thursday morning, Bloomberg said, "The kindness of Officer Lawrence DePrimo is an important reminder to give back this holiday season."

"Individual acts of kindness are laudable and we only wish that the NYPD leadership encouraged more of them," McGregor Smyth of the Bronx Defenders, a civil rights legal defense group, said in an email in which he commended DePrimo. "Unfortunately, instead of providing meaningful assistance, the NYPD's overall policies towards homeless New Yorkers include routine harassment, summonses, and arrests for the most minor offenses."

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