“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.
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.
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.
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.