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When we are all the Enemy: the Homeless, the Police, & the Repercussions of Suspicion

Cop Cars by Julie Bocchino

[Before we start, a preview: The recent UC Davis pepper spray incident and Occupy Wall Street protests are catalyzing me to finally publish this experience. The connection between those events and this story is VERY tenuous. This story is more about the repercussions of the police's "everyone is a suspect" mindset. What I’m about to recount happened a little more than a year ago. It's no where NEAR as violent as what happened to those students, and I still fully haven’t processed the entire event. In truth, nothing violent happened to me at all. I'm relating a personal experience, and I don't know if the police followed healthy procedure here or not. I do know I'm still thinking about this event more than a year later. I also have to warn you, the post deals with a lot...]

The squad car idled by the curb. Its driver continued to stare at us with the passenger side window rolled down. He’d been there for three or four minutes, so I walked over to offer a neighborly “hello.” I leaned over, reached inside the car, and offered my hand. Instead shaking my hand, he slid his hand from the steering wheel to his holstered nine millimeter. At that moment it occurred to me I might be in trouble. I wondered if I’d soon be in handcuffs—or worse.

So how did I get into the middle of this standoff? For that we’ll need to go back to the beginning of the evening.

The Back Story

The night started festively at a concert. I’d met friends at the Downtown Raleigh Amphitheater (“The Walt”), to enjoy Vampire Weekend’s music. It was a cool October evening. I had dressed comfortably, layered in a light cashmere sweater, jeans, and a lambskin leather coat.

We had parked a mile from the amphitheater, and with the encore still reverberating off industrial buildings my date and I began a pleasant stroll back to my car. Arm in arm we meandered, all smiles as we hiked through Raleigh’s Warehouse District, where we were approached by two haggard looking black males, their t-shirts dirty and threadbare. They quickly asked for money.

You should know I talk to almost anyone who approaches me, regardless of what they look like. I’ve never met a dangerous person panhandling, and unless I’m threatened physically or verbally, (and I’ve never been threatened) I’ll chat for as long as anyone wants, or more frequently, as long as my time permits. I rarely do anything to improve the situation of the homeless. I typically don’t offer anyone money, and these interactions rarely repeat.

So there we stood talking. My date and I quickly learned a few things:

  1. The guys were “fags” (their word, not mine).
  2. They wouldn’t go to a shelter.
  3. They wouldn’t go to shelters (or similar programs) because they really liked crack.
  4. They were staying at the Milner Inn, one of the last places in Raleigh where, if rumor is true, you can still rent a room by the hour.

As we stood there talking, I felt the cold work its way into my joints and my knees began to ache. I heard them repeatedly beg me to put them up for the night at the Milner Inn and to drive them there. I repeatedly told them I couldn’t give them money for a room or drive them there because I didn’t know them. Really, I didn’t want them to have any extra money for crack, yet for some reason on this night I couldn’t make myself walk away.

Enter Raleigh’s Finest

I pondered what to do as they continued to beg. We continued to chat, we introduced ourselves (in order to protect these guys I’m going to call them Sam and Bill), and both our positions didn’t change. I tried to call friends with experience working with the homeless (I didn’t get anyone). I wondered if there was an alternative way to get these guys warm for the night, and then suddenly the police officer pulled up to the curb.

So we find ourselves back at the beginning of my story—the officer’s hand on his gun, my heart rate quickening, and me wondering how this is all going to end. That night I was lucky—my date happened to be an SBI officer. As I backed away from the car, she calmly introduced herself, announced she was carrying her credentials, and slowly reached into her purse for her identification. She explained we were just talking to these guys, that they were begging, and slowly the tension drained from the officer’s face.

I asked why he had stopped to stare at us. He told us we looked out of place. I asked if these guys were dangerous. He told us they were male prostitutes. I repeated my question, “but are they dangerous,” and silence followed. After an awkward pause he finally offered, “I saw two well dressed white people talking to two known prostitutes and something looked off.”

“This is my beat,” he continued, “and when I see something off, I stop. I was trying to hear what was going on. I figured you guys didn’t belong, and when I see something like that then I know something is up.”

Understanding struck me. Sam and Bill called themselves “fags” because they were male prostitutes, and the officer believed we were soliciting sex from them. They weren’t just boyfriend and boyfriend, and they weren’t disparaging their sexuality. They were working the street together, protecting each other, and if they didn’t make enough money for a room tonight they would keep each other warm.

Hidden People & the State of Shelters

The cop finally left, and the more we stood there talking, the worse I felt. I felt helpless. I felt cold. I felt alone. And I felt for these guys. I could only imagine how they felt. More than anything, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I didn’t want them to sleep outside, at least for one night. I knew they wouldn’t go to a homeless shelter, and truthfully I didn’t blame them.

I’ve only been to one shelter in my life—the Raleigh Overflow Shelter. My well meaning high school theology teacher took a group of us students there after we failed to find anyone to give sandwiches to in Moore Square. I remember row upon row of cots and the smell. It was like the smell of a dumpster on a hot day, but somehow human.

Aside from the offensive smells, I’ve come to understand that homeless shelters are notoriously unsafe, and that despite these places best efforts people are routinely jumped or worse. How could someone sleep under those conditions? How could I ask Sam and Bill to go someplace I wouldn’t go myself.

City shelters aren’t the only options in Raleigh. For example, The Healing Place and the Raleigh Rescue Mission will take anyone for one night. These guys would never go there though because both places have rules, and the residents have to be clean after the first night.

I finally decided to pay for their room. I told them I would pay for their room at the Milner Inn, told them they’d have to walk there, and said goodbye. I didn’t want Sam and Bill riding behind me as I drove. I gave them my phone number, drove to the Milner Inn, paid for their room, and went home.

The Homeless, Raleigh, & Me

As I reflect on that October night, I hate that I left them on that street corner. I hate I used my date as the excuse not to see them safely to the Milner Inn. Even then, I could have called them a cab. I could have walked with them. I could have done any number of things, and yet I didn’t. Instead I was tired, angry, and ready to go home.

I haven’t heard from those two guys since that October night. They will never call me again. I wonder if they are safe or arrested, if they’ll recognize me if we see each other again, or if I’ll recognize them. I wonder if they are being cared for in a shelter, if they’ve cleaned up, or if they are avoiding other organizations that demand they change before they care for them. Mostly though, I wonder if they are warm.

I’ve come to learn how great a job my city does at hiding away the homeless. The Raleigh Overflow Shelter had more people than I’d ever seen on Hillsborough Street, Fayetteville Street, or Moores Square (arguably the most prevalent areas for the homeless to gather in Raleigh) combined. I’ve learned the laws of our city are designed to discourage the homeless from gathering near business districts. Specifically, there are stringent laws against begging. You’re technically not allowed to beg after dark, to beg without a permit, to beg within a certain distance of an ATM, or even to beg within a certain radius of a church.

The Police & the Repercussions of Suspicion

I’ve come to realize that Sam and Bill are not what bother me most about this story (which really troubles me because their condition should be what I think most about). One year later, and the police officer still troubles me. It’s maddening to me that a conversation between two different perceived socioeconomic strata creates suspicion.

The events at UC Davis help me understand why. The woman I dated in the story (the SBI officer) would tell you she was trained to view everyone with suspicion. In other words, we are all the enemy in the eyes of the police. It’s us versus them, and they’ve got guns.

I don’t want to imply that police officers are malevolent individuals. Quite to the contrary, most officers I know are great people—truly the salt of the earth. I don’t think the officer in my story is a “bad guy.” He was just doing his job, and his job is incredibly difficult. I’m also very thankful there are people that want to do police work.

What bothers me is how the police are trained to do their job. I get the sense that our relationship with the police changed drastically sometime in the last century. I read somewhere recently that this mindset shift came about us a result of the police “wars;” the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.”  Somehow average everyday people became the “enemy.” Somewhere along the line the motto “Serve and Protect” became “Enforce and Obey.” Sometime the concern became less about “us” and more about “them.”

I’m from “Mayberry” and I’m yet to meet an Andy Griffith on the job. The natural by-product of this mindset is an aggressive police force, and frankly who could blame the officers? If they are trained to see possible threats to neutralize, then naturally at the first warning sign they will take the most efficient form of action to mitigate their risk, and hopefully along the way they minimize the collateral damage.

The Difficult Path of Changing the Police Mindset

Soon, I’d like to look up in my rear view mirror and think to myself “I’m glad that guy is there” instead of thinking “Oh shit, how fast am I going” (which is the first though we all have regardless if we’re speeding or not)! The only way I see this happening is if we engage in a conversation with our local police forces and our elected officials.  I’m hopefully this story, and other stories like this story will spurn that conversation. I’m hopefully you will start to tell your stories too. I know it’s a very difficult conversation, yet I believe it’s a conversation we have to have for a society’s health.

A Few Final Thoughts

  • The Healing Place and the Raleigh Rescue Mission are great organizations, doing good work to help people. I don’t know how they could function without their rules. I can’t imagine trying to care for a coked-up, manically violent addict. I can’t imagine creating a safe environment for other people if someone is so hell bent to get a fix they’d destroy another human being to get it. At the same time, I don’t know how you love by carrots. These places are effectively saying, “give up the one thing that matters most to you, and we’ll care for you.” I don’t know how you develop a trustworthy relationship under those conditions. Hugh Hollowell told me recently, “Imagine telling your girlfriend you’d love her if she lost 20 lbs. Is that love?” I completely agree with Hugh’s sentiments, and it’s tough.
  • A few days after all this went down I emailed the officer in the story and invited him to brunch. He declined (which I totally get because he probably thought I was a complete oddball). I really wish he hadn’t.
  • Although I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the police, I hope you (and I) haven’t forgotten Sam and Bill. I have no idea what the best way to love and care for people like Sam and Bill is, and I don’t believe the answer is formulaic. Equally as important as the conversation around the police is the conversation around the homeless. I can’t help but wonder what our police force would look like if they ceased to be “enforcers” and became “first responders.”