Amid applause, handmade signs and cellphone photography – and the raucous cheers of one proud mother – 26 freshly minted Department of Homeless Services Police Department peace officers received a final bit of guidance from instructors and NYPD brass after completing a four-week training academy at John Jay College in early-May.
“You have an incredible amount of power, authority and responsibility,” said Terence Lynn, Senior Director of Professional Studies at John Jay, before the conferral of peace officer diplomas. “You’re going to be around a lot of people who need support and protection and you’re going to be that support and protection.”
Administrators from NYPD, which gained official oversight of DHSPD in January, offered similar counsel.
“Power is an awesome responsibility,” said NYPD Deputy Chief Edward Thompson. “Know your decisions will affect the people you work with for a lifetime.”
“Have compassion. You’re not weak if you have compassion,” said Keith Sainten, a retired NYPD detective and one of the main course instructors.
Compassion and support are essential for serving a population that disproportionately experiences substance use disorders and mental illness: According to a 2016 mental health resource guide released by the Mayor’s ThriveNYC initiative, 35 percent of clients in the city shelter system have a serious mental illness – but advocates, union leaders, shelter staff and shelter residents question whether current training sufficiently prepares peace officers to serve the roughly 60,000 people who live in DHS shelters
They add that, while the city and NYPD have expanded education on mental health, crisis intervention and de-escalation, inadequate supervision and limited resources hinder an inexperienced force.
Since the 2015 murder of a Bronx shelter director, the role of peace officers – law enforcement officers in familiar blue uniforms – has increased significantly throughout the city’s sprawling shelter system, especially at sites for individuals with mental illness. It is now a requirement that an officer be stationed at each site that specifically serves homeless individuals with mental illness. Their role and number varies based on the size and culture of the shelter. At many locations, peace officers monitor the shelter entrance and operate metal detectors while guards from private companies handle the bulk of security. At other shelters, peace officers regularly patrol the floors.
Shelter social service staff – social workers and case managers – typically work into the late evening but rarely remain overnight, leaving DHSPD, along with private security staff and residential aides, largely responsible for managing crises involving people with mental illnesses.
The making of peace officers
DHSPD officers must be 20 years old and are required to have a high-school diploma or GED. They earn a minimum base salary of $32,435 with a significant amount of overtime due to mandatory shift coverage, arrest processing and occasional court appearances. After seven years, peace officers earn a maximum base salary of $45,376. A recent job posting for ten DHSPD sergeants – experienced peace officers who must pass a supervising officer’s exam – on the city’s municipal job board lists starting salary at up to $51,993.
Though DHSPD officers – who are not permitted to carry firearms – perform many of the same tasks as NYPD officers, such as making arrests, applying physical restraints, using Tasers and confronting emotionally disturbed individuals, peace officer preparation pales in comparison to the six-month NYPD academy.
The four-week training at John Jay College includes defensive maneuvers and a crash course on policing and mental health awareness. The 140 training hours at John Jay exceed the 99 hours of training mandated by the state for the role of peace officer.
Throughout training, recruits undergo intense exercise – daily regimens of sit ups, push ups and stair climbing, according to one training sergeant. A 2014 YouTube video shows DHSPD trainees performing leg raises and practicing a tactic for disarming someone with a stick. One peace officer describes the first day of training as “military boot camp.”
DHSPD recruits complete a one-day course in Mental Health First Aid – a training favored by law enforcement agencies across the country – and role-playing exercises with actors who simulate behaviors exhibited by people with mental illness or substance use issues.
Following the four weeks at John Jay, new officers complete two weeks of administrative training at the DHS headquarters.
Derek Jackson, Law Enforcement Division Director for Teamsters Local 237, which represents peace officers, said a high dropout rate among recruits and frequent turnover among new officers – who often quit or are removed from the force – inhibits the DHSPD, even during the academy.
“When [the city] recruits them to come into the agency, they might start out with 50 people but by the end there’s 30,” Jackson says.
Since DHS peace officers have the state civil service title of special officer, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services performs background checks on new officers.
After completing formal academy training, a large portion of officers’ continuing education on de-escalation, crisis intervention and working with a mentally ill population depends on the non-profit organizations that operate the shelters and the involvement of individual shelter directors and social service staff. At many locations, social workers lead trainings for operations, security and DHSPD staff members. One director told City Limits that she strives to involve DHSPD in case conferences and other meetings to discuss client needs and developments. She says the efforts to build an integrative team have led to a stronger support system for shelter residents and changed a culture that she says can too often resemble a criminal justice setting.
“Nobody here is in jail,” the director says. “No one committed a crime. They’re in the shelter because they had an unfortunate situation.”
Meanwhile, other directors and staff say a clear divide and an adversarial relationship exists between law enforcement and social service staff at their sites. One former shelter director says after a resident tried to bring a banned cleaning product into the shelter to tidy her space, DHSPD confiscated the item and the director interceded so that the resident could return the item to the store rather than lose money. The next day, a DHSPD sergeant accused the director of undermining the officers and eroding their authority. The director says such disagreements were common.
Before taking over official management of DHSPD in January, the NYPD prepared peace officers by adapting abridged versions of their own mental-health education and crisis-intervention team (CIT) training for their DHSPD counterparts.
Despite policing contained spaces with a high concentration of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders, most DHSPD peace officers receive only a cursory CIT training compared to the four-day training that NYPD officers and recruits have begun completing.
Senior trainers of DHSPD receive a four-day CIT training while all other peace officers receive a one-day training on de-escalation and crisis communications, NYPD Training Bureau Commander Mark Turner told City Limits in an email. The Mayor’s Office also gives a presentation on “understanding mental illness,” he added.
DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn says 786 peace officers have attended CIT training.
Following a “recent series of isolated incidents” inside DHS shelters last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the NYPD to review shelter security policies and develop a four-day refresher course on safety and conduct for all DHSPD officers – supervisors attend a fifth day of management training – according to a June 2016 NYPD memorandum to all DHSPD officers.
The memo states that mental health, substance abuse, child abuse and domestic violence experts assisted in developing the training, which includes a two-and-a-half hour segment titled “Understanding Mental Health and Disorders” taught by a NYPD School Safety Training Academy instructor and DHS instructors. The segment curriculum includes a brief overview of mental illness with a specific discussion of psychosis and schizophrenia as well as an “auditory hallucination exercise.” The curriculum also describes a section on identifying and communicating with individuals with co-occurring mental illness and substance-abuse disorders and a discussion on the potential effects of K2 synthetic marijuana.
In addition, the second day features modules to enable officers to better identify and understand domestic violence, victimization and trauma as well as a review of 4th Amendment protections.
On the third day of training, officers briefly discuss topics from the previous day and attend a two-hour session on crisis communication and de-escalation when confronting emotionally disturbed persons, part of CIT training. Officers also address use of force, radio communication and handcuffing before they attend an hour and a half course certifying them in the use of Oleoresin Capsicum spray – commonly known as pepper spray.
The fourth day of training includes role-playing scenarios and a review of guidelines for making arrests, transporting prisoners, protecting victims and providing medical treatment.
According to a January press release by the City, 123 DHS security supervisors and 666 DHS Peace Officers had received some sort of enhanced training from the NYPD in “various security-related topics, including access control, understanding mental health and disorder, victimization and trauma, domestic violence, crisis communication, physical training, tactical training, and scenario-based training exercises.”
“Improving safety and security for our clients and staff is paramount—and our partnership with the NYPD is helping us do just that, with better policing and increased monitoring resulting in more effective reporting and enforcement in our shelters,” McGinn told City Limits in an email. “With the NYPD officially overseeing shelter security beginning in January, we are laser-focused on ensuring these reforms take hold citywide, including adding security personnel, implementing new access controls, and providing new training for all DHS security personnel.”
Nevertheless, shelter residents say they routinely encounter disrespectful guards who seem to treat the shelters as corrections facilities rather than last-resort housing for low-income New Yorkers.
“They’re really aggressive and in certain situations you have to be aggressive, but they seem to be cranky,” says Picture the Homeless Advocate Charmel Lucas, who has experienced housing instability and homelessness since the friend she lived with in Coney Island moved after Hurricane Sandy. “When you’re a homeless person, they say you must be on drugs or you did something wrong. If you don’t know how to talk to people, why would you take this job?”
“Certain [officers] are alright and certain ones go overboard, talking down and trying to intimidate people,” says Picture the Homeless Advocate Jermain Abdullah, who works two jobs and resides at a shelter on Wards Island. “They have to have a sergeant that is always around to correct misbehavior. That’s a step in the right direction.”
Abdullah says he has observed positive changes in the way officers interact with shelter residents over the past year and a half. “A lot of times they created issues because they were too aggressive in the beginning, running around and kicking doors in,” he says. “Now only a few are too aggressive.”
A union’s critique
Earlier this year, the city launched a prominent advertising campaign throughout the subway system – grinning peace officers with tasers strapped to their belts – to encourage New Yorkers to take the peace officer exam and apply for a position with DHSPD. The exam seats filled up well before the late-April deadline.
During an interview with top officials from Local 237, Jackson, union president Gregory Floyd and lawyer George Geller repeatedly cited a staff shortage, lack of supervision and inadequate training as dangerous problems for shelter residents and staff who regularly face violence.
“New Yorkers with six weeks of training and you throw them in the shelter with a 100 mentally challenged individuals. It doesn’t work. It’s ineffective. A police officer is trained in police academy for months,” Jackson adds. “We have shelters where an entire class [of recently certified peace officers] went into that shelter. They might put one or two senior officers there, but they’re on different tours. You might have tours where the entire team is rookies.”
NYPD recruits spend several days outside the academy observing experienced police officers, touring neighborhoods and interacting with community leaders. After completing the academy, probationary NYPD officers undergo months of field training with veteran officers in their precinct.
NYPD recruits participate in extensive crisis management and de-escalation scenarios at their College Point academy, which features simulated apartments, businesses and subway cars as well as a courtroom and precinct.
During the DHSPD graduation ceremony, numerous speakers referenced a day of role-playing activities to prepare for likely interactions with shelter residents.
Jackson DHSPD also employs too few sergeants and lieutenants who are forced to supervise numerous facilities.
“You have an emotionally disturbed person in one shelter, a couple of arrests in another shelter, a couple clients fighting and getting injured in another shelter,” Jackson says. “The lieutenant can’t be in all those places – how does the lieutenant decide where to go?”
After a shelter resident fled DHSPD custody at an East Harlem shelter in April, Jackson says peace officers informed him that no supervisor had worked the overnight shift at the shelter in five months. He says a sergeant or lieutenant should be present to guide officers during every tour.
A January press release issued by DHS states that DHSPD hired 186 new peace officers and increased overall staffing to 777 from 548 since May 2016. In an email, DHS spokesman McGinn said DHS now employs 827 peace officers with 47 recruits in training.
Reorienting priorities and practice
While NYPD receives most of the attention from reformers and the public, New York City depends on various auxiliary law enforcement agencies, such as Health and Hospitals police, DCAS police and school safety agents, to patrol its municipal spaces.
Police reform advocates acknowledge that law enforcement plays a role in the management of shelters, but said an over-reliance on policing at the expense of other strategies has fostered a culture of distrust and led to more punishment of behaviors associated with mental illness and substance abuse.
“The government uses the police as a response to social problems where another response would be more appropriate, humane and cheaper,” says Police Reform Organizing Project co-founder and New York City mayoral candidate Bob Gangi. “Some police officers can handle these situations, but for others, their disposition is ‘might makes right.'”
Gangi says the city should enlist more mental health professionals as first responders in situations involving an emotionally disturbed person or when physical force is required to subdue individuals who threaten others or themselves.
“The fundamental problem is trying to make a system work better where the design doesn’t fit the need,” Gangi says. “The problem is people are in crisis and the common sense remedy is to send more mental health professionals.”
Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, a leading police reform advocate, also said New York City tends to prioritize policing over other interventions.
“How many [problematic] behaviors are by people with mental illnesses who are not getting help and treatment and by others with substance abuse issues not getting real assistance?” Vitale says. “There only seems to be money for addressing policing of these facilities.”