Picture a safari where you witness a lioness stalking a herd of buffalo in the plains of Duba, Botswana. An elderly buffalo lags behind the herd, and it is singled out by the huntress precisely because of its vulnerability. When predator pounces on her prey, you probably do not consider the principle of justice. No, the safari-goers understand that the most vulnerable are the easiest meals in nature. The lioness kills for survival, end of story.
Oscar C., an undomiciled Hispanic man from the Bronx, explained to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) that the NYPD targets homeless people to reach stop and frisk quotas. They do so, Oscar believes, because they’re poor, they have no money, and no job. Oscar said that NYPD officers routinely station themselves by homeless shelters in the Bronx “waiting for somebody to come out.” After 15 stops, Oscar’s approximation of the number of times he has been stopped, questioned, and frisked, one must wonder if this 36 year old man is onto something.
Police do not only disproportionately target undomiciled folks where they sleep, but also where they try to scrape together funding for their basic survival needs. Michael P., a man in New York City, claims that police aggressively enforce panhandling laws, specially a law against panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM, and routinely frisk panhandlers. If one is unfortunate enough to resort to panhandling, the meager earnings should probably go to survival needs before a tape measure. Panhandling is a misdemeanor, and three misdemeanor charges amount to a felony. The prospects of employment drop drastically for a person with a felony and no shelter.
When people are held in police custody they risk losing their space in a homeless shelter. Many shelters require people to sign in at least once every 48 hours in order to keep their space. If those 48 hours expire while police are holding someone that person gets kicked out of the shelter. The stop and frisk program, therefore, fosters a situation of perpetual homelessness. In essence it diminishes several of the already limited opportunities available to undomiciled people to meet their most basic survival needs.
Do these facts lend themselves to any existing conception of justice? Does targeting the least advantaged in society for arrests that perpetuate their state of vulnerability seem fair? Can it be coincidence that James A. of the Bronx has been stopped over 60 times by police for sleeping in the Rambles? When Carl W. explains that his friends stay in Penn Station or Staten Island Ferry Terminal to hide from police because “after a while, if the police ticket you, arrest you so many times, after a while they come to personally know you, and then you’re in a situation where every time a cop sees you he’s gonna give you a ticket or arrest you,” does this seem like the logical consequence of fair policing?
Upon walking through the “concrete jungle” of New York City one can witness this predatory policing. The officer may be preying on the vulnerable for his survival as well. After all, police have quotas to meet, and their jobs put food on the table. Justice is the key separation between officer and lioness. Human beings have an innate ability and desire to hold other human beings accountable to the principle of justice. Even if, as in this case, we are not doing so adequately.
Photo by Devin Smith released by a Creative Commons license.