Sunday, February 22, 2009

What do homeless people want from the police?

The Sacramento Police Department came in for some criticism this week when an officer towed the uninsured, unregistered car of a homeless woman. She was left on the curb with her belongings in the rain.

The SPD blog acknowledged that criticism but wanted to make sure the public knew that the officer involved tried to assist the woman in phoning friends to help her move her belongings.
The sentiments of readers who called to complain about the towing of Van Slate’s car are understandable. However, we doubt that anyone would want to find themselves in a collision with an uninsured motorist. The Sacramento Bee’s own recent article on February 6 (Road hazard: uninsured driver rates climb), stated that the numbers of uninsured motorists are rising nationwide. This also means that the frustration and expense incurred by insured motorists who find themselves in accidents with the uninsured can also be expected to rise.
According to the Insurance Research Council cited in the article, rising unemployment rates correlate to the rise in uninsured motorists (3 million more uninsured motorists than five years ago). More insured motorists in collisions with uninsured will be picking up the tab for auto repair, injuries and court costs after accidents. This also means police officers everywhere are going to increasingly be faced with difficult situations like the one on Friday, and will have to wrestle with the aftermath of negative public opinion in order to protect all of the drivers on the road.
The blog also calls attention to the larger societal issue of homelessness, and says society's efforts would be better spent solving that problem than blaming officers for enforcing the law.
These are all fair points. So what is it that homeless people really want and need from law enforcement.
First, they want to be treated with dignity. The police departments in various cities tend to reflect the attitudes toward homeless people that are held by their superiors and by the city's elected officials. When Edward Flynn was hired as police commissioner in Springfield, Massachusetts, my home city, his focus on "quality of life" issues led to officers being told to photograph homeless people, with or without their consent, ostensibly so they could be identified if found dead. Homeless people were frequently rousted and told to move on. Sometimes their tents were destroyed.Homeless complaints about the police have declined (thought not disappeared) under the new police commissioner William Fitchet, who is focusing, with some success, on reducing serious crime.

Second, homeless people want the police to use their discretion humanely when homeless people are technically violating laws which are rarely if ever enforced for other populations-- jaywalking, loitering, vagrancy-- as long as they are otherwise behaving.

Last but scarcely least, homeless people want the police to help keep them safe. When Steve Donohue, a homeless man, was murdered by another homeless man last summer, the Springfield police comforted his friends and moved swiftly to apprehend the killer. Those actions went a long way in closing the trust gap between the homeless community and the police. With the terrible increase of violence against homeless people, the homeless community needs the police as much if not more than the community at large.


Tom said...

Excellent, Michaelann. Homeless people would most like just to be treated FAIRLY. A good friend of mine, here in Sacramento, was given a ridiculous jaywalking ticket; he was just rather-obliviously following the crowd that was crossing a street, that didn't have any traffic, perpendicular to an outdoors mall, and was singled out.

One cannot know for sure, but had my friend been better dressed, he very likely would not have been cited.

Fairness, fairness, fairness. Be not to hard, for life is short, and nothing is given to man, least of all homeless men & women!

Rick said...

Shows how people don't understand homelessness. The SPD tried to defend their action by saying the woman had an opportunity to call friends.

If she had friends to call she wouldn't be sleeping in her car in the first place. That's not rocket science!