November 13, 2002
New York City Police Department
Dear Commissioner Kelly,
We write in response to a number of reports we have received in the last two weeks about a dramatic and troubling change of practices by the NYPD’s Homeless Outreach Unit. We would like to meet with you or appropriate members of your staff at your earliest convenience to discuss this matter.
Since October 30, we have received letters and telephone calls from five different persons with first-hand knowledge of the operation of the Homeless Outreach Unit. Those persons have provided us with consistent information that we believe raises serious questions about the Unit and the City’s policy towards homeless New Yorkers. In particular, we have been informed that the Homeless Outreach Unit has been instructed to single out the homeless for arrest and to seek to arrest the homeless wherever possible.
According to the information provided to us, sometime in mid-October members of the Homeless Outreach Unit were ordered to start looking for any justification possible to arrest a person who was homeless. In addition, they were informed that if they observed more than one person engaging in low-level criminal activity (such as being present in a park after it had closed) and one of those persons appeared to be homeless, they were to single out for arrest the homeless person and not to arrest the others.
On a more fundamental policy level, we have been informed that members of the Homeless Outreach Unit have been told that the primary mission of the Unit now is to arrest the homeless, not to provide services to assist the homeless in getting off the street. We have been further informed that officers in the Unit have been threatened with transfer out of the unit if they do not make arrests.
Finally, we have been informed that these directives have been repeated on a nearly daily basis at roll calls at the Homeless Outreach Unit. In addition, we have been told that these directives have come from high-level officials in the Department, including from Chief Michael Scagnelli.
Consistent with all of this, we have been provided with specific arrest figures from the Homeless Outreach Unit. According to our sources, between October 26 and October 30, there were 28 arrests of the homeless, 23 of which were for misdemeanors and 5 of which were for violations. We have been further informed that the total arrest figure rose to 88 by midnight November 5, and to 153 by midnight November 11. We have been told that these numbers represent a significant increase in arrest activity by the Unit.
To the extent these reports are accurate, they present serious and troubling issues. We know of no legitimate reason for singling out the homeless for arrest.
We therefore would like to meet with the Department to discuss this matter. We also ask that your staff provide to us with arrest figures from the Homeless Outreach Unit for the last twelve months (since November 1, 2001).
Associate Legal Director
c: Steven Hammerman, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters
Gail Donoghue, Special Counsel, New York City Law Department