CityViews: Is NYPD Oversight Really Making Homeless Shelters Safer?

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Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray along with the new Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Herminia Palacio and Commissioner of Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services, Steven Banks visit the Bellevue Men's Shelter in Manhattan in 2016.

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A response to this op-ed from the New York City Department of Homeless Services is appended.
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New York City’s shelter system—operated by the Department of Homeless Services—is home to more than 60,000 individuals overnight. The shelter system is complex, dynamic, and progressive; it accommodates the least fortunate of the city.

In previous mayoralties, the NYPD did not oversee shelter safety. Shelter safety was provided by security guards and peace officers. In Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty, the security guards and peace officers remain, but the police department oversees shelter safety. How did this partnership between the NYPD and the shelter system come about? And how has the partnership fared?

The transition to NYPD oversight began after four shelter murders in winter 2016. In March of that year the NYPD and city homeless officials collaborated on assessing security and implementing safety-plans. The effort was not entirely voluntary: A state agency regulates the shelters, and the state had reached out to the city demanding actions to curb the violence.

In 2017 the NYPD posted online “Keeping Our Homeless Neighbors Safe.” This press-release announced police oversight of shelter safety throughout the city. A police chief, Edward Thompson, and commissioner of social services, Steve Banks, wrote: “In January of this year, we formalized that partnership, with NYPD now overseeing security” at hundreds of shelters across the city.

The two leaders explained “Security personnel and Peace Officers began receiving enhanced NYPD training to properly address various situations and critical incidents, including working with clients with mental health disorders, a history of victimization and trauma, and domestic violence.” The leaders co-wrote that spending for NYC shelter security in 2017 fiscal year would total $217 million.

Shelter security is vital to the mayor’s controversial “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan to create ninety new homeless shelters by 2022. The big investment in shelter security is to benefit shelter residents, but also to appease New Yorkers who question what danger shelter residents may bring to neighborhoods.

Questions exist about the NYPD oversight of shelter security. In April 2018 I filed a whistleblower suit against the city, alleging improper government action at the Department of Homeless Services. In late April 2018 state-regulators opened an investigation of incident-reporting in the shelter system. The probe went beyond shelter-arrests concealed from the public. More important to the state was whether city homeless officials had neglected to report serious incidents.

A picture of shelter safety soon emerged. It was far different than the picture City Hall had painted. The state rebuked the city for not reporting an array of incidents, some which the state learned of through the media rather than the city. The incidents revealed a disturbing pattern of the city’s selective reporting.

After the discoveries, regulators demanded improved reporting. City Hall’s 2018 management report reflects the request: “In late spring of 2018, DHS [Department of Homeless Services] submitted a new shelter incident reporting plan.” City officials submitted this plan to the state and installed a critical incident reporting unit. The city pledged compliance and communication.

These improvements in reporting were not accompanied by evidence of strong NYPD oversight. Less than a month after the critical incident reporting unit was established, a woman at a Queens shelter was doused with flammable liquid and set on fire. The incident occurred after a prolonged verbal argument, according to witnesses, and the suspect was not apprehended by the NYPD until three days later.

The next month—August 2018—an elderly man was killed in a fistfight at a Brooklyn shelter. The NYPD did not recommend charges against the much younger man who had beaten him; witnesses told detectives the older man had provoked the fight. With social workers, security officers, peace officers, and NYPD oversight, it is surprising the fight was not stopped before it became fatal.

Day in and day out, city officials declare the shelters are safer than ever before, because the NYPD is now in charge. The public may ask if City Hall cares more about the image of shelter security than safety itself, with arrests being undercounted and incidents going unreported.

The people living in the shelters count on the city. Neighbors to the shelters count on the city too. This month marks two years of NYPD oversight of shelter security. With so much invested in the arrangement, a thorough examination is overdue.

Kennedy has worked in family and singles shelters. He was employed by the Department of Homeless Services from October 2016 to December 2017. His termination is the subject of ongoing litigation.


Response from the Department of Homeless Services

These allegations are not borne out by the data, and two unrelated, isolated anecdotal incidents do not paint a full, let alone accurate, picture of shelter safety. In both of these tragic cases, our staff responded immediately. The fact is: protecting the health and safety of the New Yorkers we serve as they get back on their feet is our number one priority. That’s exactly why the NYPD now oversees shelter security citywide—and their management is showing results improving shelter security, with increased reporting, enforcement, transparency, and accountability by the most effective police force in the nation. To that end:

•We continue to transform a haphazard shelter system decades in the making with unprecedented investments in historically-underfunded programs, including more than doubling our funding for security, opening the first centralized DHSPD Peace Officer training academy, and implementing a 200-hour training curriculum going above and beyond state requirements to teach best community policing practices like de-escalation, access control, understanding mental health and disorder, victimization and trauma, and crisis communication.
•We publicly share information related to our progress improving safety and security through a number of different channels, including verified NYPD arrest data, Social Services critical incidents data, and annual data on the homeless individuals who’ve passed away every year, which shows fatalities are down to the lowest levels in years.
•And we revamped our Social Services critical incident reporting workflow, including implementing new agency procedures, updating our glossary of incident types and categories, and streamlining our Client Assistance and Re-housing Enterprise System (CARES) module as well as staff training, all to ensure the most comprehensive and standardized incident reporting across all shelters, with more staff completing the training and reporting of incidents increasing as a result of these enhancements

While there is always more work to do, we remain squarely focused on taking that progress even further in the new year, improving quality of life, safety, and security for the New Yorkers working hard to get back on their feet who we serve and support every day.

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