Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Conversation With a Dallas Police Officer: A Good Man ‘Just Doing His Job’
Last night at 10:35 P.M. I drove downtown to see for myself what was going on with the homeless people who’d been banned from sleeping in the courtyard of the Bridge and were once again sleeping on the street. I had heard a rumor that authorities were going to start ticketing homeless people tonight. I drove down Corsicana Street and turned right onto Park Lane. Just ahead of me were a small group of homeless individuals sitting or lying on the steps of a ramshackle building across the street from the Bridge and few Dallas Police officers standing in front of them on the sidewalk and street. There were a couple of police bicycles pulled up there, a scooter of some sort, and, as I sat there, a police cruiser arrived.
I stopped my car beside one of the officers and rolled down my window, asking him respectfully, “What’s going on? Are you ticketing people tonight?” His face was familiar, and he was polite and forthcoming. “Right now we’re issuing warnings. Tomorrow, a list will be drawn up and we’ll go from there.” I asked for more details: were there to be warrants and arrests? “I don’t know. I just get my orders piece by piece.” I questioned him further about where the orders were coming from. City Hall was all he knew, but no specifics. “I know this must be hard on you guys, too,” I told him. “No, I’m just doing my job,” he said emphatically. “Thank you for the information,” I told him. I made eye contact with a homeless man who was sitting on the sidewalk waiting for his citation from another policeman. “I wish it could be different,” I said to all concerned.
I used to see the police department differently in these situations. Around this same time last year, I would have thought of the ticketing officers as enemies of my homeless friends. Then I sat in a church service at First Presbyterian Church downtown and listened to a sermon by Dr. Joe Clifford around the time 150 to 200 homeless people were taking refuge at night from police arrest by sleeping on that church’s parking lot. At the end of his moving sermon, Dr. Clifford said a prayer that surprised me: he prayed with sympathy and with unity for the homeless, for the church, for the city, for the Dallas Police — ALL of whom, he said, were doing the best they could in a difficult situation. In that moment, my thinking changed from ‘us’ — the homeless and those who advocate for them — and ‘them’ — city officials and police who make and enforce laws that I believe unfairly target the homeless — to ‘all of us, doing the best we know how at this point in time.’
Nonetheless, as I drove away and pulled up to a stop light near the Farmer’s Market last evening, I felt devastated by this turn of events. For the second night in a row, I sat by the Farmer’s Market in my car and wept. This is what we were putting behind us when the Bridge opened, wasn’t it? Weren’t the days of huddled and miserable human beings sleeping on the cold concrete of our city streets being roused from their brief rest by uniformed men, ‘just doing their jobs’, issuing them citations for ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘obstructing the sidewalk,’ and any number of other ordinances designed to specifically get the homeless out of public view… weren’t those days now going to be behind us for good?
I pulled over into a driveway and ‘phoned a friend’ who knows the situation. He, too, was stunned by this turn of events. Neither of us could believe that, a year later, after all that has come to pass, we are back to this. God help us all, then and now.