Officer suspended; refused to jail homeless NYC man

By Josh Getlin
Los Angeles Times
Nov. 30, 2002

NEW YORK - 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.

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 person."

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.

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 people 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 declared unconstitutional.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly defended the department's decision to take away Delacruz's 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 insubordination.

"You have to be able to follow the directions of a supervisor," Kelly said. "Being a police officer is not for everybody. And perhaps this officer feels he's not suited for the job. We don't know."

Although the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has declined to comment on Delacruz's case, the police officers union has branded the policy of arresting homeless people as "organized harassment."

The city is struggling to deal with its highest-ever homeless population. More than 37,000 people on average spend the night in New York City shelters.

This winter, city social workers will conduct a homeless "population survey" to get a handle on how many people are sleeping on streets and where.

Since taking office Jan. 1, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has boosted to 9,250 the number of permanent housing subsidies available to those in the city shelter system, an increase of 110 percent.

The city has also explored unusual options for shelter space, some of which homeless advocates have derided. This summer, a judge blocked the mayor's plan to use a former Bronx jail as a shelter. The city, bound by law to provide shelter, has also considered converting empty convents and community centers.

Homeless supporters want the city to commit itself to building 100,000 new housing units and renovate 85,000 more over the next 10 years, at a cost of about $10 billion.

Bloomberg, facing major city budget deficits, said the problem is more complicated than writing a check. The city says it is trying to provide short-term solutions, guaranteeing food and shelter, while it explores a long-term fix.

Associated Press contributed to this article.

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