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The Sargeants Benevolent Association’s Flickr page, after Flickr removed all their photos. (screenshot by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

“Please utilize your smart phones to photograph the homeless lying on our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality of life offenses of every type.”

Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association

The New York Police Department (NYPD) wants to regain the trust of the New Yorkers it alienated with recent controversies like “Stop-and-Frisk” and the killing of Eric Garner. Its strategy? To profile, shame, and detain the city’s most vulnerable population: the homeless.

The Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) is the NYPD’s biggest union of officers. Their “Peek-A-Book, We See You Too!” campaign asked New Yorkers to submit photos and locations of homeless people to the NYPD via the SBA’s Flickr account. Quickly, the SBA’s Flickr page amassed over 270 photos of homeless people before Flickr removed the images, reportedly without notifying the SBA. The Instagram account @nypd_homeless, which claims affiliation with SBA, has posted some of the same photos accompanied by crude captions.

A photo posted on Instagram with the caption: “Generational Problems #takebackthestreets #homeless #newyork #nypd #homeless” (photo via @nypd_homeless/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

In a comment to the Huffington Post, SBA spokesman Jordan Bieber said that the campaign was designed to “generate awareness that the number of homeless people around the city is growing.” But the SBA’s campaign is more nefarious than that because it specifically targets homeless people for loitering and vagrancy crimes that anyone can commit. Oddly enough, it seems as though police officers are encouraging vigilantism, one that spreads across social media, where law and order are more difficult to enforce and maintain.

Law enforcement’s use of social media to track and detain suspects is nothing new. As reported last week, the San Francisco Police Department has an officer whose job is to “patrol” Instagram for suspicious activity. Additionally, the government can subpoena content and deleted posts from social media companies for most criminal cases.

The SBA’s campaign reverses the order of things in terms of social media surveillance. Instead of searching for evidence, police officers are creating evidence. One of the major problems with the SBA’s campaign against the homeless is that it relies on off-duty police officers to do the job of investigators. Mullins’s memo states:

Active members of law enforcement are prohibited from photographing members of the public while on duty. However, photos may be taken while traveling to and from work or any time off duty.

In the hands of the SBA, social media has evolved past surveillance into full-blown panopticism. Even when police officers are off duty, it appears that they are watching us online and offline, with camera phones in tow.

A class in Paris between 1910 and 1915 studying the Bertillon method of criminal identification, developed by the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. (photo by Bain News Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Profiling the homeless harkens back to the practice of Bertillon criminal identification. In the 19th century, Alphonse Bertillon pioneered a method to deduce the biometric makeup of a criminal. He used photography as a supposedly objective source of information. Later on, eugenicists and law enforcement agencies adopted the Bertillon method to analyze the faces of criminals and determine what future criminals would look like in order weed them out of the population. The Nazis also used the Bertillon method to profile Jews, homosexuals, and other groups they deemed undesirable for the Aryan race they sought to create. Largely discredited since the fall of the Third Reich, Bertillon’s most enduring and visible legacy is the mug shot.

It is no coincidence then that police continue to presume they know a criminal before a crime is committed. Police officers who contribute to the SBA’s campaign buy into a notion that the homeless are an identifiable group of people. Yet homelessness is not a precondition, it defies categories of age, gender, race, and even income (many homeless people do work, but still cannot afford housing). And there is a marked difference between homelessness and panhandling, poverty and vagrancy.

A photo posted on Instagram with the caption: “Urban camping pro. We need to eradicate the homeless from our streets. #takebackthestreets #nypd” (photo via @nypd_homeless/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

Because the SBA’s campaign relies on social media tools to aggregate images of allegedly law-breaking homeless people, it engenders an image of the homeless person as necessarily criminal.

The homeless are perfect targets of political exploitation. In recent years, the homeless population in New York City has mushroomed, with 58,761 homeless people sleeping in shelters, and thousands more sleeping on the street. That’s 72% higher than the homeless population 10 years ago. The homeless are victims of capitalist progress — of rising rent, gentrification, and a lack of affordable housing. The homeless are also victims of domestic violence, mental illness, physical disability, addiction disorders, exploitation, and other serious health problems. In many cases, the homeless are the same people the police have failed to protect. Therefore, the SBA’s Flickr account was not a document of homeless shame; it is an archive of urban grief.

Photos uploaded to the SBA’s Flickr page before they were taken down can be seen here and here.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

11 replies on “Peekaboo, the NYPD Is Watching You!”

  1. The @nypd_homeless Instagram has 7 posts, 16 followers, and follows 12 people, one being Christina Aguilera and another a skateboarding club called “Curb Crushers.” You really think this is meaningfully related to the NYPD, worth using photos from, and an appropriate place to reference Nazi ideals?

    According to your own link, the Bertillon criminal identification was effective at tracking criminals. It was replaced, not for being racist and stupid (as your writing seems to imply), but because fingerprinting could isolate physical differences to a much higher degree, as settled in a particular criminal case, which is one reason why we use it today.

    Maybe you should read and pay attention to what you link to. Maybe write about art.

      1. I don’t defend cops. The last cop I interacted with, I eviscerated him in front of his superior, making him red in the face with rage, because I knew my fucking rights and wasn’t going to let that little crew cut shit try and intimidate me. I later called his sergeant, explained in detail the entire episode, was thanked for calling and assured he’d be reprimanded. Among the things I explained to his sergeant is that had I been a black guy in a hoodie, I’d have been shot, and the poorly trained guy is a liability to him and the department.

        If you reread what I wrote, I’m obvIously pointing out the gullibility of your writer in citing that fake Instagram account as anything but a ruse. I’m criticizing the integrity of his writing, as further evidenced by my pointing out that his own link on Bertillon criminal identification contradicts what he wrote about it. The articles was just manipulative outrage porn of the worst kind, and it ruins websites over time because they start depending on it for clicks (e.g., Salon). The whole internet is going that way.

        This has been happening at Hyperallergic over the last year as it drops art more and more to include “politics” as a subject in itself. It’s disappointing because I think Hyperallergic was stronger in quality a while back. The story I read was “simply about politics…” which sucks. I used to read Hyperallergic all the time for issues about art but now I’ve started going back to the “establishment” publications because, well, I want to read about art again.

        1. I was kidding. Chill. And Hyperallergic does not shy away from politics, never has and never will. The idea that art is independent of politics is a fiction propagated by elites that have everything to gain by separating the two since the status quo serves them. I enjoy your comments, but we also can’t make Hyperallergic what it is not.

          1. I see. I misread your comment. My apologies.

            The article above isn’t within the scope of art and politics because it’s got no art in it. Not even Duchamp would find “art” up there.

          2. It does because it is connected to the politics of representation and its relationship to power. I think that’s one of the predominant themes of art in the last 50 years.

          3. OK, I am tying myself to the mast after this one, but no way.

            Discussing an image within “the politics of representation” does not make the image, or anything else, art. Let’s pretend this Hyperallergic author didn’t mistake the Instagram account as a total spoof, but it was indeed 7 images posted by cops who hate homeless people and like Christina Aguilera.

            Do you think anyone who took those photos or posted them thought they were making and exhibiting art? Is Mr. Small going do a follow up critique and shame the work as bad Stieglitz? Maybe it will be a formalist critique and complain about the overly-centered composition. Maybe we’ll see this work again at AIPAD or curated at ICP.

            Really, there’s no art here. Just politics. Might as well invite Daily Kos writers over and sprinkle the text with images of an angry Donald Trump. Maybe his hair can be the art part.

          4. HA! I love this discussion.

            I think the way police “see” is very important not only to the politics of representation but the origins of photography and surveillance (a hot topic!).

            Photography was first “normalized” and used by the state in criminal investigations. Police in cities around the world maintained files and photographs as a way to control marginal populations.

            In this case we have police asked to photograph and document the homeless in a way to shame the city and specifically the mayor — they are aware of what an important tool it can be.

            It’s possible this could end up at AIPAD, particularly since there has been a growing interest in amateur photography, and at a recent Paris Photo fair in LA there was actually an exhibition title “Unedited!: The LAPD Photo Archives,” so, yes, anything is possible. http://hyperallergic-launch.newspackstaging.com/122936/sunshine-tinged-with-noir-at-paris-photo-la/
            Please don’t ruin our surprise, we will do a Trump hair series. KIDDING! Or am I?

          5. Thanks for initiating this conversation, Harper!

            As the article states, the Instagram account claims affiliation with the SBA…which the SBA has neither commented on nor denied. The actual focus of this article is not on the Instagram account, however, but on the SBA’s Flickr account. As I said, the Flickr account rapidly accrued over 270 photos of homeless people throughout the city in a few days until Flickr removed the images (which is amusing because Flickr essentially censured the police). The SBA solicited these photos from off-duty police officers and regular citizens alike.

            And I have to agree with Hrag. Perhaps I’m biased, but digital culture, social media, surveillance, and the dynamics of authority/poverty are huge themes of contemporary art (of Postmodernism if you want to get into specifics). Look at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition, “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870,” or maybe the photographs of Arne Svenson to contextualize the SBA’s homeless project with an art historical lens as opposed to an art theoretical one.

            And please, let’s keep Christina Aguilera out of this.

  2. I heard some one described the NYPD as the best police force in the world ..and I fell over laughing. They are more like racist praetorian guards dedicated to protecting the white establishment of NYC.

    From the very beginning of AmeriKKKa they were slave catching thugs doing the bidding of slave owners. During the 1863 Irish anti-black race riots/pogroms against the black citizenry of NY, they facilitated and turned a blind eye to the butchering and slaughtering of thousands of innocent black men, women and children

    Then they worked hand in hand with white organize Irish, Jewish, Italian criminal gangs to control the numbers and drug pushing racket in Harlem. We cant even get an even playing field when it comes to criminal activities, white folks has long used the power of the government/state to keep black folks down making sure they stay on top in every kook and cranny of AmeriKKKan life.

    A few years ago these fascists brownshirts/blue shirts near -rioted and called the then black Mayor of New York mayor Dinkins ” N….gger ” when he tried to speak with them. we believe that They have been long been infiltrated to Irish and Italian organize crime. 60 Minutes did a show a while back documenting Italian Mafia death squads/hit men operating within their ranks.

    They have murdered thousands of innocent black people over the years. They shot Diallo 45 times, shoved night sticks up the anus of innocent black people just for a laugh( you dont get any sicker than that). ran a police state under that racist degenerate Guilliani. Murdered Eric Garner… I could go on and On..

    Now they are going after the Good Mayor Diblasio of NYC.. by going after the homeless… I am sure one of the reasons they hate Mayor Diblasio…. a good and decent man…. is because he is married a N..gger woman. He is a race traitor in their eyes.

    I am sure when the Third Reich comes to AmeriKKKa they will be in the vanguard against people of colour..Now is the time to trim their sales mayor Diblasio… you cant run or be intimidated by the heirs of Mussolini and Hitler’s storm troopers- you have to take them on now because tomorrow might be too late.

    WAKE UP NYC and America!! .. White AmeriKKKa is ripe for white supremacy fascism and NYC KKKops will be leading the charge on their behalf.

  3. Here is a tip that can easily be confirmed. There are a significant number of NYPD officers with family ties to organized crime and who are engaged in crimes involving financial fraud. And you wonder why they engage in this type of thuggery and abuse of power?

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