A homeless man's new pair of boots

In the heart of a cold November, NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo encountered a homeless man, shoeless despite the frozen temperatures. DePrimo bought the man a pair of shoes and helped put them on his feet. A tourist captured the incident on her cellphone and shared the experience. News organizations worldwide picked up the story. Later it was discovered that the homeless man had gotten rid of the shoes, but the officer’s selfless kindness was met with universal approval from both the public and media.

This story told me two important, but very different points: the public isn’t aware of how generous and giving the law enforcement community is, nor does it fully grasp how large a percentage of our homeless population is mentally ill. They need to be educated on both counts.

My point about an officer’s generosity is one that every cop will understand, because at some time every cop has reached into his or her pocket and helped someone while on duty. In my experience, it’s a frequent occurrence.

Police officers don’t advertise their generosity. Neither they, nor their departments, do personal PR for themselves or their profession. They don’t let people know how much they put back into the community, both in terms of going the extra mile (helping out with community efforts) and digging into their own pockets.

I remember officers buying meals for the down and out, pitching in to help put gas in the cars of people passing through our town after they had run out of gas, paying for bus tickets, hotel rooms, clothes, groceries—you name it—and all without asking for recognition or public acknowledgement of their kindness.

What Officer DePrimo did was admirable, but it wasn’t unusual. Police have always been good-hearted, giving back to their communities many times over. While public perception is sometimes canted more towards the tough or even callous cop, reality is that police officers can often be soft touches...and come in contact with people who are in need more than any other profession, other than perhaps social workers or members of the Salvation Army.

That brings me to my other point; police also come into contact with the mentally ill on a regular basis. I have written before about how law enforcement is learning to deal with the mentally ill in a more compassionate and successful way, but the issue of the mentally ill who are also homeless isn’t going away anytime soon. Why? Because it’s not being addressed.

The homeless mentally ill, like the man to whom Officer DePrimo donated a pair of shoes in the cold, are invisible in society. I know of no accurate statistical data on how many homeless people there are in this country—everything is basically an educated guess—and of those who are homeless, the percentage of mentally ill who live among them can also only be estimated. Be assured those numbers are high, and that’s another fact every officer who has ever worked the streets will back up.

Stories like the one that appeared all over the media last November in the wake of DePrimo’s kind act are welcome. They show that cops are more than enforcers. We’re good men and women who do the right thing without expecting anything in return for our actions. And it also highlighted the indisputable fact that this country needs to pay more attention to the high incidence of mental illness in our homeless population. The lesson? Press coverage can be beneficial in humanizing both images and problems.

Sometimes cellphone cameras can be a good thing.