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A Bench, a Homeless Man, A Cop’s Brutal Judgment: Poverty as a Presumption of Guilt

| October 19, 2010

homelessness bench

No sleeping allowed. (Brandon Doran)

It’s wonderful when city and county commissions pat themselves on the back and say what wonderful things they’re doing to help the homeless. But look at their not so wonderful ordinances first, which vilify the homeless as if they were undocumented aliens in Arizona.

We’re not there yet in Flagler County or Palm Coast, where homelessness is not as visible as it is in cities or the counties next door, and where–so far–there’s been a concerted effort to to help. But they’re there. They’re here. Ask the school district. And with trends the way they are (the poverty rate almost doubling in four years, foreclosures still devouring the place like locusts, no appetite for more than nominal safety nets and still plenty of lathering over keeping taxes low) it’s usually a matter of time before affordable compassion gives way to more arid rules in the name public order and keeping merchants happy.

Take Sarasota. The city wrote an ordinance to make it illegal to camp in public places using sleeping bags or blankets as bedding. There never was a problem with happy campers deciding to put up their tents in downtown Sarasota. But this wasn’t about campers. It was about the homeless. The city could not pass constitutional muster by saying that homeless people couldn’t sleep on park benches. So it came up with that evasive scheme: no camping. And it defined camping as anyone with “lodging”-like gear. Sleeping bags. Duffel bags. Tents. Things homeless people tend to carry.

Douglas Passineau is homeless. He was sleeping on a downtown bench, harming no one, harming nothing but a city’s image of itself as a place where, apparently, making poverty invisible is the same as eliminating it. He had a duffel bag under his legs. That immediately, in the arresting officer’s eyes anyway, made Passineau a law-breaker, since he had “lodging” items and was “lodging” on a bench. She moved in.


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“One thing led to another,” the Herald Tribune’s Tom Lyons writes. “When the officer ordered Passineau to put his arms behind his back, she said, he refused and said he was tired of being repeatedly harassed. When she grabbed his arm, she reported, he ‘jerked back and swung back at me.’ No contact was reported, but Featherstone then grabbed the man by the neck and head, and pulled him to the pavement. She said she needed to punch him in the head several times, and a bartender who had been closing up at nearby Mattison’s City Grille ran over to assist her, before Featherstone could get the formerly sleeping man into handcuffs. So Passineau is in jail at taxpayer’s expense, and he apparently can’t afford to bail out now that he is charged with a felony — resisting arrest with violence, as well as with unlawful ‘lodging.'”

Douglas Passineau, compliments of the Sarasota Police Department.

That bartender: icing on the cuffs. And that cop: was harassing a man sleeping on a bench really the most effective way to justify her shield? Cops make those calls all the time. There’s lawbreaking of one type or another everywhere. Most of it is is as innocent as jaywalking. A homeless man sleeping on a bench is less than that. There’s a degree of irresponsibility in jaywalking. There may well be (and there usually is: let’s not romanticize them) irresponsibility in what leads to homelessness. But a cop isn’t there to enforce moral judgments on a man’s past, only to enforce laws. Justly, not cruelly. Which also entails not enforcing them cruelly when plea-bargaining with reason and circumstances, as cops do with every decision.

In Passineau’s case, had the cop not deemed the duffel bag a “lodging” item, she could not have legally made that arrest. It would have been a homeless man on a bench, and a sleeping man on a bench is not illegal. Add that duffel bag, and Featherstone had her probable cause. That’s not even the worst of it. The offense to the police officer–the man’s indignation, so easily lighting the fuse of a felony–his resistance, his swinging back, that was the offense: he had to be punched. Several times. And jailed. None of that would have happened had the cop not instigated that series of judgments that turned a harmless act into a dubious case of lawbreaking, and that supposed lawbreaking into an even more dubious case of busting a man’s chops, and worse.

So it is. From sleeping on a bench to sitting in jail. The man faces a felony and can’t bond out, but sooner or later he’ll be out again. Nothing’s been fixed. A man’s life has been made worse. Not much will be said. In cops versus homeless, cops win.

We’re no longer at the point of worrying about presumption of innocence. This is something more pernicious that implies immunity of power. It’s a presumption of virtue. Cops enjoy it. The homeless don’t. Suspects don’t, especially when ordinances are written with them in mind. But this is what we can be as a society. Brutish, nasty and short-sighted. We don’t have to be. It’s a judgment call. But city and county ordinances choose to be one way or another. They spell it out, then set their Finest on the prowl. Compassion? That’s for the back-patting segment of government meetings.

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8 Responses for “A Bench, a Homeless Man, A Cop’s Brutal Judgment: Poverty as a Presumption of Guilt”

  1. DLF says:

    The law made not be fair but it is the law. If we want to change it there are ways to do that. Just another liberal oh pity me article. I don’t think it is fair that the goverment is forcing me to buy health insurance, if I don’t I will be fined. But that is on the liberal agenda, take control of my life for me because I am not smart enough to do so. I don’t see that being addressed by anyone, seems a little more important then a homeless person sleeping on a bench, I hope he has purchased his health insurance.

  2. Chuck says:

    Bravo DLF, way to make a story about a homeless person all about you. Absolutely brilliant.

  3. DLF says:

    Chuck, thank you.

  4. starfyre says:

    laws are laws-dont break em

  5. William says:

    God forbid you “humanitarians” should have to walk a mile in this man’s shoes. I wonder about how you might adhere to the law when it has thrown you under the bus, only to back up and run over you again.

    DLF and starfyre have obviously left the human race. I piss on you.

  6. janessa passineau says:

    This is unreasonable on the cops of that town…. they are nothing but ignorant fucking ass holes who judge everyone unfairly. Do they not realize that everyone who is a person has a life and a past in which they can’t change if there are always fucking stupid ass people like that stupid bitch cop judging and only making a persons life even worse than what it is. obviously this man ( my father) has a hard life as it is. This cop, let me guess has a nice home, has a job, has the clothes, has the car, has the money, has what she wanted out of life and now is passing her judgement on this homeless man which was just sleeping on a bench and has obviously a beg that he owns. Fuck those Police!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOVE YOU DAD!!! and I hope i can see you some time when i gaduate from college!!!!!

  7. coolbreeze says:

    #1….Doug passineau was not sleeping on bench.He was simply sitting outside an open air music venue and listening to music.His backpack was at his feet.The sarasota city police ofc. Tammy Featherstone asked him for his I.D. without probable cause.Doug replied “Why are you hassling me for no reason.Ofc. Featherstone then attacked him ,beating him severely.His attorney has all the pictures.His body was covered in boot marks after the assault by police.I have found him several attorneys who specialize in police brutality(outside Sarasota ) who will be filing suit on his behalf against the city of sarasota and Ofc. Featherstone personally.Ofc. Featherstone has a long sorted history of brutality while on the city police force.She has been called a feral of the chain ofc. in the courtroom when I testified for the homeless.

  8. Sean says:

    I grew up with Doug. We were the best of friends. I’m sorry for what he’s been through and I hope like hell he is able to sue this particular cop right out of a job. Maybe she will then find herself sleeping on a bench, sick of being harrassed by the police. Karma, if you are out there…

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