Imagine that you are homeless in Detroit. You have an area where you know you are safe, where you can find food and shelter if you ask. Now imagine that a cop grabs you from the street, throws you into a van, drives you to the edge of the city or even a suburb and then kicks you out. That’s what the ACLU is accusing the Detroit PD of doing.: they filed a complaint with the Justice Department against the DPB this week.
The complaint comes at the end of a year-long investigation into claims that the department routinely drove homeless people to areas unfamiliar to them, leaving them to get back on their own. They will approach homeless people, especially in tourist areas like Greektown, force them into vans and drive them miles away, the complaint alleges. Sometimes the officers would even take what little money they had, leaving them with no recourse but to walk back to the city. Sometimes the homeless victims would even be left in neighboring towns and suburbs like Dearborn and River Rouge.
Speaking for the ACLU of Michigan, staff attorney Sarah Mehta told the local CBS affiliate:
“DPD’s practice of essentially kidnapping homeless people and abandoning them miles away from the neighborhoods they know with no means for a safe return is inhumane, callous and illegal. The city’s desire to hide painful reminders of our economic struggles cannot justify discriminating against the poor, banishing them from their city, and endangering their lives. A person who has lost his home has not lost his right to be treated with dignity.” (source)
The ACLU was contacted by the St. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church Warming Center, a homeless shelter. They told the organization about several homeless people who were “taken for a ride” by DPB officers. One such story came from Andrew Sheehan, a 36-year-old who used to be homeless but is now working at a grocery store:
“I had my back turned to him and I did not see him approaching, and the first thing he did was he kicked me. He didn’t identify himself as an officer and he kicked me and told me to get up. I asked him if I was free to go. He told me no.” (source)
The organization has published the stories of five homeless people who were kidnapped and harassed by Detroit police. You can read the stories here.
According to the ACLU’s complaint, some of the homeless who were taken had to walk many miles to get back to downtown shelters. This puts them in danger from a variety of sources, especially in the middle of winter.
The ACLU has asked the Department of Justice to investigate the allegations. They have also asked the city to issue a directive to police officers to desist this practice immediately.
This is unconscionable, but it’s not new. Removing the vagrants and undersirables from where the “regular” people might be upset by them is an old practice, according to Samuel Walker, a police accountability expert:
“This is a familiar story with a long history in policing. You do wonder what did this Police Department learn from the consent decree experience?” (source)
Detroit’s Chief of Police, Chester Logan, declined to comment, saying that he had not yet seen the complaint. The AP was also unable to get comments from Mayor Dave Bing or the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. Not surprising.
This bad economy has seen an uptick in the homeless situation. Yes, it makes some of us uncomfortable to see them, perhaps because we see more of ourselves in them than we would care to admit. But ignoring the problem won’t solve it and taking these people to the edge of town and exposing them to danger is not the way to handle it. Detroit’s police need to look inside and find their better nature before they get someone killed.