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NYPD suspends compassion in dealing with homeless

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Recently, a New York police officer discovered that blind obedience wasn't his forte. In a tug-of-war between personal integrity and orders from a supervisor, Officer Eduardo Delacruz, 37, chose the road less traveled -- he listened to his conscience.

For his trouble, Officer Delacruz was suspended for a month without pay. He also faces a department trial for insubordination for defying a direct order from his sergeant. The only unforgivable sin as far as the NYPD chain of command is concerned is saying "no" to someone who outranks you.

In recent years, New York cops accused of unconscionable acts of brutality have been assigned to desk jobs while their cases were investigated. It's interesting that Delacruz's reluctance to enforce a legally dubious social policy resulted in sanctions far more severe than those accused of truly notorious crimes ever expect.

But the police brass must've suspected that Delacruz was going to "go off the reservation," given his over-the-top compassion for the homeless. The eight-year veteran's troubles began in earnest Nov. 22 when he and his partner responded to a radio call about two homeless men sleeping in a heap of garbage bags at 1 Irving Plaza in Midtown. Their sergeant happened to tag along for that shift.

As members of the NYPD's new 48-member Homeless Outreach Unit, Delacruz and his partner were expected to adhere to the department's rigid new protocol for dealing with the city's rapidly growing ranks of homeless people.

Faced with a public relations nightmare that evokes memories of New York before his predecessor "put things in order," Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the herculean task of making an estimated 37,391 people "disappear" from the streets every night.

Once prompted by the officers of the Homeless Outreach Unit, vagrants and other social "undesirables" are expected to go quietly to overcrowded shelters that may or may not turn them away. In 1987, when the city had 28,737 homeless people to house every night, there simply weren't enough shelters in the five boroughs to accommodate them all. Fifteen years later, the available shelter space hasn't kept pace with a benchmark that was already woefully inadequate.

At this point, juggling bodies in a daily minuet of human misery seems to be the city's plan for dealing with the complex and varied needs of the homeless. Those who refuse to go through the motions of what is just as often an exercise in futility are arrested and shepherded through a criminal justice system that never seems to run out of beds.

Officer Delacruz had the temerity to ask "Why?" -- a definite no-no in the clannish world of New York City law enforcement, where blind obedience and the submersion of individuality is the ideal. Delacruz struggled to understand the logic of a social policy that depends on cops to shift homeless bodies around like chess pieces on a board already too small for a fair and equitable game.

In the end, Delacruz opted out of following orders that didn't make sense to him. He told his colleagues he wasn't going to arrest homeless folks. Instead, he provided them with bags of clothes and coffee. Such a fundamental subversion of the department's stated mission didn't go over well with supervisors who couldn't care less about the Golden Rule.

When Delacruz, his partner and their sergeant came upon 44-year-old Stephen Neil and another homeless man sleeping in a parking garage at 1 Irving Plaza, it was the proverbial moment of truth. When the vagrants refused to go to a homeless shelter, Delacruz's partner slapped the cuffs on one of them. Despite a direct order from his sergeant, Delacruz refused to arrest Neil. A good cop's journey into limbo began at that moment.

Now halfway through his suspension, Delacruz is no longer speaking to the press. His bosses ordered him to respect a media blackout they imposed. It's not in his interests or the NYPD's to harp on the fact that a cop put his job on the line by refusing to follow what he considered an unjust order.

There are many who consider it a dangerous thing when a cop confronted by an ethical quandary dares to think for himself. But it wouldn't be the first time heroism was confused with something far less noble.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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