This is the story of my walk from work to the subway tonight.
The scene: As I walked down the street there were people stopped in front of the Chinatown bus station. They were all watching two men pushing a homeless man against the wall. The men were going through the homeless man’s pockets. The homeless man was yelling a lot.
After I passed the action I stopped and looked back, then I called 911 because nobody else was using a phone. I told the dispatcher that it appeared 2 men were accosting a homeless man and going through his pockets, I then updated my report to the fact that they had him on the ground, and I gave the dispatcher my location. I took this picture right after, it is the only one I took (mostly because I am slow with my new phone):
It took a bit for the cops to show up. I spoke briefly with a security guard standing around who told me the homeless guy had apparently done something inappropriate to a young woman on the bus. I asked him why the guys were going through the homeless man’s pockets before the cops showed up and he said “that’s a good question”.
In the meantime there was a middle aged man seemingly trying to be in charge somehow. This man seemed to want me to move on, I said I was glad the guys stopped the homeless man, but why did they go through his pockets? There was some yelling at me at that point. ‘You don’t know what happened’, ‘If you were attacked’, etc etc. The cops showed up during this. I said I would just wait around and see if the cops needed anything from witnesses. The middle aged man took one of the cops aside and said a bunch of things, gestured once at me, and left.
The cops proceeded to do their job, pretty well I think. They cuffed the homeless man, asked for his name, ID, and searched him. They were firm and appropriate with a ranting yelling homeless man. They questioned the woman from the bus and spoke to the two men who detained the homeless man until the police arrived. Some of the seven or so cops glanced at me, though the one who had spoken to the middle aged man did not once.
I was feeling very torn between appreciating two men standing up trying to do the right thing and worrying about vigilante justice going too far too easily. As the police were putting the homeless man in the car I went up to an officer on his own. I told him I thought it was wonderful that the two men helped when many would not but asked if it was appropriate for them to search him. I got an explanation of why they were arresting the homeless man. I agreed that that was good, and asked if it would be appropriate for the officers to tell the two men what they had rights to do (ideally NOT search the homeless man). He said no, at which point I said something about the appropriateness of citizens searching another citizen. Apparently the officer had misunderstood my first couple of comments and said that would be inappropriate. He also told me one of the two men originally holding the homeless man was an off duty cop.
I told the officer that that fact made me feel so much better, I shook his hand, thanked him for speaking with me, and took the subway home.
*End of story*
I am glad I had an easy out in that I ended feeling fine about the situation. But what if one of the men had not been a cop? What would I have done? What would you do? I know I do not want to be the person that does nothing in effed up situations, but then again I did not know the whole situation. I stood there for at least 20 minutes simply because I wanted to feel better about it. I am lucky I felt better so easily. I would love to feel like I know what my actions would be had it been more complicated, but I don’t. So seriously, what would you do?