While police confiscations of syringes have gone down since a state law in 2010 permitted people to carry those that are legally obtained, it still goes on in the city, according to harm reduction educators and some drug users.
“There are still abuses. They take away their meds or rip up their cards. They take away their syringes, and for what — so they can share a syringe and Hep C?” said Joyce Rivera, executive director of St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
In a department-wide October 2012 “operations order,” then-NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told all officers that “persons found in possession of hypodermic instruments may not be arrested solely for the possession of that device, notwithstanding their age or whether they are participants in Syringe Exchange Programs.”
While drug users are hesitant to speak publicly about run-ins with police, amNewYork spoke with three — before the current administration took office on Jan. 1 — who reported retaliatory actions after cops found them carrying syringes.
Oscar Gonzalez, 48, of Harlem, still resents being stopped one evening last August by a policeman who he said slammed him against the wall “because he said I looked suspicious.” Anticipating that he was about to be frisked, he told the officer he had syringes in his book bag. Still, when the cop saw he had 20, the officer demanded to know, “Why you got so many?” Gonzalez recounted.
“Once I use them, I break them and throw them away: I’m a clean addict!” Gonzalez said he told the officer. Gonzalez, who said he is especially scrupulous in his injection practices because a brother died of AIDS in 2005, said the officer “took them from me and threw them in the garbage.”
The officer wasn’t interested in seeing his SEP (Syringe Excange Program) ID card or hearing about how syringe exchange prevents the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, claimed Gonzalez, who said he was then allowed to go.
SEPs are a proven and essential tool in stemming the spread of blood-borne diseases: A 2012 report by the NY State Department of Health showed that while Hep C diagnoses remain high in New York, new HIV diagnoses decreased 37% between 2002 and 2010. Syringe Exchange Programs, which allow drug users easy access to clean needles and remove used ones from circulation — as well as higher rates of condom use — are largely responsible for that decline.
Yet, drug users report that some cops continue illegally confiscate their syringes or book them on other trumped-up charges — usually disorderly conduct, loitering or trespassing.
A January 2010 report issued by the Urban Justice Center, VOCAL-NY Users Union and the NYC AIDS Housing Network found that harassment of IV drug users occurred in a larger context of racial profiling, gentrification and the war on drugs, with police targeting injection drug users in a “misguided effort to collect information for anti-drug enforcement efforts.”
IV drug users rarely file official complaints. But Mike Selick, policy and participant action associate at New York Harm Reduction Educators, said he hears plenty. “Whether it’s an illegal arrest or not, it stops people from returning their syringes. And the programs only work if we get the syringes back,” said Selick. “Quotas are a part of it: They call it ‘productivity,'” Selick said of the stops. “If they don’t get someone on syringe possession, and they’re looking to make an arrest, it’s easy to come up with other charges: disorderly conduct or loitering,” which are difficult to contest, Selick said.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for specific data regarding the reported problems, but Deputy Commissioner John J. McCarthy said in an emailed statement: “Officers are trained on the department’s policy regarding arresting individuals in possession of hypodermic needles as the sole charge. Arrests are monitored for compliance.”
“It is the department’s sole responsibility to educate police officers regarding its policies and procedures,” Albert W. O’Leary, communications director for the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in an emailed statement.
A spokesman for the Sergeants Benevolent Association said he was unable to reach who he needed to provide a comment on the issue.
After Juan Roure, 49, a peer educator for New York Harm Reduction Educators attempted to intervene on behalf of a client having his syringes confiscated by police on Elder Avenue near Westchester Avenue, in the Bronx last JanuaryJanuary, they both wound up jailed. When the Soundview resident tried to explain that syringe possession was not illegal, an officer announced, “for being a know-it-all, we’re going to take you in and run your name through the system to see if you have any warrants, and give you a DA (desk appearance ticket) for trespassing and loitering,” Roure said.
“They took me to the 43rd precinct and I came up clean, but a half-hour later, one officer said, ‘we can’t give you a DAT (desk appearance ticket). We have to put you through the system because the sergeant has the last word.’ The reason they gave is because I have a criminal history,” said Roure. Roure pleaded guilty to the loitering charge (resulting in a $185 fine which was dismissed for inability to pay), because he wanted to leave. The judge tossed out the drug user’s trespassing charge “because he was coming out of the building where he lived,” Roure said.
Like Gonzalez, he never thought of filing a complaint. “I have a criminal history going back to 1978 and I’ve been upstate three times and have multiple misdemeanors,” said Roure. A complaint coming from someone like him, he said, “would be a waste of time.”