A social media campaign by a New York City police union to post photos of homeless people to Flickr has been criticized as a way to "victim blame" or "homeless shame" people down on their luck, but law enforcement experts say it also shows the police unions trying to adapt to the power of social media that has been focused on them for the past year.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association launched the campaign by emailing members and urging them to take photos of the homeless in New York, according to the New York Post. They've so far posted nearly 240 photos to a Flickr account online, showing people sleeping in doorways and in subways, urinating on streets, and begging for food and money.
"As you travel about the city of New York, please utilize your smartphones to photograph the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type," SBA President Ed Mullins wrote in the letter to SBA members, according to the Post. "We will refer issues to the proper agencies, and we will help create accountability across the board."
The campaign is a pointed critique of Mayor Bill DeBlasio and his policies on both policing and homelessness, with Mullins writing about the "failed policies, more homeless encampments on city streets, a 10 percent increase in homicides, and the diminishing of our hard-earned and well-deserved public perception of the safest large city in America."
The SBA did not return multiple requests for comment from VICE News. Tension between the police unions and DeBlasio has been simmering since last year's public row that saw officers in uniform turn their backs on DeBlasio at the funeral for two officers who were shot and killed in the line of duty.
Outrage over the campaign simmered online, where the Southern Poverty Law Center called it "unacceptable," and many Twitter users condemned the action as victim-blaming.
The campaign represents to some law enforcement experts an attempt by police officers to harness the power of social media after a year in which they have often been the focus of controversy. Maria Haberfeld, chair of John Jay College's department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration, told VICE News that the police now realize they can use social media to get widespread attention for a problem they see as an important or urgent issue.
"If decision-making people, policy people, are aware of a problem, and aren't doing enough and don't seem to be generating an immediate solution, which in this case people probably would like to see, and the sooner the better, then the police union takes the responsibility on itself of taking the next step," Haberfeld said.
She said that people will have to "get use to" more public debate about issues that were previously handled privately.
"Suddenly there is this awakening to police use of force, not because it's a new phenomenon but because we are much more exposed through social media, so it works both ways, it works for their accountability of public performance but it also should work on other end, when police unions are able to alert decision makers to acute problems," she said.
John DeCarlo, author of the book, Labor Unions, Management Innovation and Organizational Change in Police Departments, said that the SBA's campaign is part of a long history of dialogue between the city administration and police officers, who often have "two very different perspectives" on public policy.
"I think what you're seeing is a natural progression of communications," DeCarlo told VICE News. "Unions would've been talking to politicians and going to newspapers before, and now it's a grassroots campaign of getting the word out on social media for what they think is important and what they think the public should be seeing."
DeCarlo says that cops are trying to document the changes they are noticing on the streets as they go about their jobs. He says higher ranking police and city officials have a big picture view of the city.
"Being Mayor or Commissioner, you're looking at a lot of different perspectives, not just the crime rate or homelessness, but educating children and satisfying constituents and all sorts of things," DeCarlo said. "Whereas the union is looking specifically at one issue, crime and disorder, and so often their perspective is very focused on that one issue."
But both policing experts and homeless advocates told VICE News today that the use of a social media campaign to influence a public policy debate is probably a good thing, and the advent of social media simply moved an existing debate between cops and administrators into the public realm.
"Social media allows people, whether in the police profession or another profession, to sort of be much more vocal about issues of concern," Haberfeld said. "Maybe 5 or 10 years ago maybe the police were aware of problems in city and didn't necessarily see a proper platform [to discuss it], but now social media allows them to say what the issues are, so it's just a new vehicle."
Jeff Foreman, policy director at Care for the Homeless, agreed with the policing experts, noting that the while the campaign could run the risk or stigmatizing the homeless, it could also lead to a debate about better solutions for the city's homeless problem.
"If it raises the focus and consciousness on homelessness in New York and people are looking for and committing to solutions to the problem, then it can be a good thing," Foreman said. "Obviously anything that stigmatizes homelessness or leads to enforcement that criminalizes homelessness is not a good thing, that actually makes it worse."
He said that the consequences of the union's homeless campaign will be determined by how it is perceived by the public and administrators, and he hopes to see it perceived as a "cry for help" that spurs the city into greater action in helping house the homeless.
Foreman's group would like to see an increase in supportive housing equipped with "wraparound" services, including mental health services, that help people get off the street. He said those services are more fiscally responsible for the city than the cost of arresting the homeless and housing them at the city's "most expensive homeless housing at Riker's Island," the city's jail.
The social media campaign and experts seem to also agree on the fact that there are more homeless on the street than in previous years, despite the fact that during the annual homelessness count in February of this year, there was a five percent decrease in the number of people counted, Foreman said.
"I think most New Yorkers think there are more homeless on the street right now," he said.
Haberfeld cautioned that despite the open critique of the administration by the police unions, both entities are working toward the same goal and are merely engaging in public debate about the best way to keep the city safe.
"Unfortunately," she said, "there is this perception that the unions are on one side and the administration is on the other but the truth is it's in everybody's interest to do something about this," she said. "At the end of the day, the administration, the bosses and the police organizations have the same interests as everybody else, they want a safe and secure city."
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