We dare you to steal this guy's sign. Photo via Flickr user Morgan Garnett
When you walk by a homeless person begging for change, you’ve got a few options. You can (A) toss him a quarter, (B) pretend you don’t see him and feel either crushing guilt or burning self-righteousness, depending on your disposition, or (C) stop and have a conversation, because guess what—homeless people are actual humans that you can talk to without their hobo germs violating your yuppie bubble.
There’s one thing you can’t do, though, and that’s stage a contest with your friends to see who can steal the most cardboard hobo signs. That's what officers Derek Hester and Daniel Zoelzer were caught doing this past November in Midland, Texas, according to an internal affairs investigation dug up last week.
Panhandling doesn't violate any city law in Midland, but on November 20, eight cardboard signs were found in the trunk of Hester’s patrol car. After he was reprimanded, he texted a warning to Zoelzer, who allegedly threw away 10 signs. The officers claimed they snagged the signs while issuing criminal trespass warnings, but the investigation found no trespass warnings issued to homeless people attributed to either of them in the past year. Among the signs was one that read "Anything helps, God Bless." Later, when the officers' text messages were retrieved, a different picture emerged. On November 21, a day after he was caught, Hester sent Zoelzer the following (very sic) text message: "My bad man when he first ask me about it he didn't seem mad or anything so I just told him me and u wereaking a game outta it when we'd traspass them and stuff." Hester and Zoelzer only ended up with a three-day suspension after weeks of their "game."
“Besides being against Midland Police policy, it’s also a First Amendment violation,” Cassandra Champion told me. Cassandra is an attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project. She noted that there have been 109 instances in the past two years where officers were investigated by internal affairs, but only half of the cases were considered legitimate. Speaking about the Midlands cardboard scavenger hunt, she noted, “individuals have the right to free speech, whether that comes as speaking in a public forum or carrying a sign.”
She told me that the Midland area is staunchly conservative, but that there are no laws against begging. The police department didn’t immediately respond to my request for more information, but it’s clear they aren’t exactly proud of their boys in blue—the same officers were reported to have collected booty like brass knuckles, scales, and knives during patrol, and never logging them as evidence.
What galls Midland residents most is the three-day suspension, which appears to be a largely perfunctory punishment. “I don’t think it’s enough,” Cassandra told me. “Three days off for officers making a game of people’s lives is a terrible injustice for those who are supposed to hold these officers to the highest level of accountability.”
Photo via Flickr user Dustin Ground
Cassandra didn’t speculate on what the proper sentence would be for a case like this, but there are reasons to think it could have been much more harsh. According to Addressing Police Misconduct, a pamphlet from the Department of Justice, there is a police misconduct provision that “makes it unlawful for State or local law enforcement officers to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. (42 U.S.C. 5 14141). The types of conduct covered by this law include, among other things, excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, coercive sexual conduct, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests. In order to be covered by this law, the misconduct must constitute a ‘pattern or practice’—it may not simply be an isolated incident.”
It would seem that a two-week long game of hobo treasure hunt would be considered a “pattern or practice,” but police discipline is often self-regulated, especially in lower-level cases.
After investigating cases of police harassment of innocent civilians, the Texas Civil Rights Project recommended that the San Antonio Police Department create a “disciplinary matrix,” to establish how to respond to such violations. For example, under current law, a recent case of the San Antonio Police harassing a lesbian couple in their home after they raided the wrong house during a drug bust wasn’t originally considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Yet a court of appeals in New Orleans eventually ruled that it was a violation and granted the couple a settlement of $145,000, thanks to efforts of the Texas Civil Rights Project. It’s fair to say that the homeless people of Midland who had their First Amendment rights violated could benefit from that kind of justice.
The cops in Texas may think making a game out of the way people collect money to survive is entertaining. The next probelm is that those trying to help are being ignored. Cassandra believes that the justice system is happy to punish the public, but they change their tone when they find themselves as the defendant: “I just hope they do everything they can to enforce the most correct and just policies.”
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