Amid growing complaints that the New York Police Department is
singling out homeless people in anti-crime sweeps, police officials have
suspended an officer who refused orders to lock up a homeless man sleeping in
a private Manhattan garage.
Officer Eduardo Delacruz was taken off the force for 30 days after telling
superiors he would not participate in the arrest of Stephen Neil, 44. The man
had refused a police request to immediately move on or report to a shelter.
Officer Eduardo Delacruz, walking his dog outside his Staten Island home yesterday,
is sticking to his principles. (NY PostPhoto/William Miller)
Delacruz, who was part of the department's Homeless Outreach Unit,
reportedly had told other officers earlier that he would not take homeless
people into custody. According to a police report, he reiterated that position
when other officers began to arrest Neil during the Nov. 22 incident, saying:
"I told you before, I'm not going to do it. I won't arrest an undomiciled
The suspended officer stood by his actions Friday, telling the New York
Post that his refusal was a matter of principle that "means a lot to a lot of
people." He has refused all further comment about his suspension.
The controversy underscored a growing debate over the way the NYPD monitors
homeless people. Although precise figures are not available, police officials
say that the number of homeless arrests for a variety of infractions is
increasing, mainly because there have been more encounters between officers
and street people. More than 37,000 people in New York City are estimated to
be homeless, an all-time high.
Advocacy groups blasted the suspension as heartless, and Patrick Markee,
spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless, said Delacruz should be
applauded for his sensitivity. Other groups are trying to end what they call a
deliberate practice of arresting more homeless people.
Picture the Homeless, a Manhattan-based organization, filed a lawsuit this
week against the NYPD, charging that police have been told to aggressively
seek out homeless persons and take them into custody for minor infractions
that would normally not result in arrest. The New York Civil Liberties Union
has filed a separate lawsuit on the matter, seeking to have the policy
Police officials stress that the Delacruz case is more about internal
police procedures than the philosophical question of how to deal with homeless
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly defended the department's decision to
take away Delacruz' gun and shield. Under police guidelines, a refusal to
follow an order calls for an immediate suspension, officials said. Delacruz,
an eight-year veteran on the force, will likely face a departmental trial for
"You have to be able to follow the directions of a supervisor," Kelly noted.
"Being a police officer is not for everybody. And perhaps this officer feels
he's not suited for the job. We don't know."
New York adopted tougher policies on the homeless under former Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani, sweeping them out of Times Square and other large public
spaces. Despite these efforts, however, the number of people without shelter
in the city -- a perennial problem -- has been growing rapidly.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose policies toward the homeless have come under
fire from activists, backed up the police department's disciplinary actions
and said: "There's always somebody that doesn't understand the law and doesn't
interpret it the right way. That's what we have management for, and the NYPD
in this case is really above reproach.
"Nobody suggests that we don't have compassion, nor that the NYPD doesn't
have compassion," he added, standing before the 43rd precinct house in the
Bronx. "They look at the people in the streets, and they know they need help,
and they try to get it for them." Although the Patrolmen's Benevolent
Association has declined comment on Delacruz' case, the police officer's union
has branded the policy of arresting homeless people as "organized harassment."
And several homeless people who spend time near the Manhattan garage where
Neil was arrested have voiced sympathy for the suspended officer.
"He's a good guy -- he's got a heart," Michael O'Shaugnessy said of
Delacruz. "He knows it's not a crime to be homeless, and the NYPD should be
ashamed of itself."
© LA Ttimes Company 2002