Looking at America Through "Broken Windows"
by chance martin
Lewis Rivera, 40, was standing in front of a downtown business in Miami on May 12th, 1999 when several police officers were dispatched to remove him. They pepper-sprayed and shackled the unarmed homeless man, who died 40 minutes later. No drugs and about one-half beer's worth of alcohol were in his body at the time of his death.
Clarence Dorsey, a 31 year-old homeless sufferer of schizophrenia, was pepper-sprayed the afternoon of June 8th, 1999 when he was discovered rummaging through a dumpster behind the Fremont, CA jail. After
detainment and release he made his way to Oakland, called his family, and was en route to their home when he was confronted by an Alameda county deputy. Claiming the unarmed Dorsey made a "threatening
movement", the deputy fired, and Clarence would never enjoy dinner with his family again.
Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a 54 year-old homeless grandmother with a history of mental illness, was stopped May 21st, 1999 on La Brea Ave. by two LAPD bicycle officers demanding to know if the shopping cart filled with all of her worldly possessions was stolen. The 5'1", 102 pound grandmother responded by waving a screwdriver at one of the officers from a distance of seven feet, he shot her once in the chest, and Margaret found release from the shambles of her life.
On May 26th, 1999 a San Antonio, TX jury awarded a Downtown Foot and Bicycle Patrolman 0,000. They determined his department retaliated against him for protesting illegal searches and seizures and other
heavy-handed tactics demanded of the patrol by their captain, who proselytized the popular "broken windows" theory of law enforcement. This theory hinges on the premise that if minor infractions -- such as panhandling or public inebriation -- are left unchecked, they will
escalate to serious crimes. Promotions on San Antonio's bike patrol were shown to be based on each officer's total arrests of homeless people in the business district. The verdict prompted a criminal
justice professor at the University of Texas to comment, "It's easy for officers to go from reasonable enforcement of laws to overly aggressive if they perceive that is what is wanted."
An anonymous juror put it more bluntly: "That 'broken window' theory, they should apply that internally. They ended up with a wall of broken windows here, and they didn't fix it."
Unfortunately, the San Antonio lawsuit is exceptional, which leaves us questioning how many homeless people are still having their civil rights trampled in San Antonio, as in cities across these United States. Maybe
if homeless and mentally ill Americans had influential and powerful unions and the legal resources that any police department enjoys, they might be better served by the mechanisms of justice. Or they could just
enjoy their right to live.
For Lewis, Clarence and Margaret, such debates no longer matter.
That doesn't mean newspapers won't continue to generate countless stories about them, or that lawyers and politicians and advocates of every stripe won't line up to alternately condemn and defend them and their executioners. But the next time some homeless person's lifetime of rotten luck plays out at the hands of some police officer eager to step up the department ladder, their names will become lost to all but their families. The names of the lost are legion.
As these names finally fade from our memory, what also becomes obscured is a shocking epidemic of needless, senseless, preventable state-sanctioned murders. And as the 'broken windows' theory of law-enforcement gains popularity all across this country, so the body count climbs.
When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems resemble nails.
When police officers are trained and encouraged to harass homeless people for pushing a shopping cart, standing on a median strip, panhandling, or drinking in public behind the premise that these infractions will lead to serious crime, then all homeless people will
look like criminals before the fact. Since the only tools the police know how to use on these presupposed criminals are force and control, homeless people in crisis wind up dead.
Every society's greatness is found in its treatment of its weakest members. How many more lives must be needlessly lost before our police, our business community and our policy makers will look upon the most destitute members of our human family and recognize broken and suffering people, instead of 'broken windows'?
(originally published in STREET SHEET - a publication of the Coalition
on Homelessness, San Francisco)