CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now we turn to Detroit, where police have been reportedly using a pretty controversial method to deal with vagrancy. Allegedly, police are taking homeless people off city streets - particularly in high tourist areas - then driving them outside of the city limits and leaving them there. The American Civil Liberties Union recently sent a letter to city officials and the Detroit Police Department demanding an end to this practice, and the group also filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, requesting an investigation.
Here to tell us more is Quinn Klinefelter, senior news editor for NPR member station WDET in Detroit.
As always, it's a pleasure, Quinn.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: You, too, Celeste. Nice to talk to you.
HEADLEE: First, let's talk about these allegations. What exactly are police accused of?
KLINEFELTER: It's something that you've heard in the streets of Detroit - and, actually, in many cities - for quite some time. This particular area is the Greektown section, which a lot of tourists go to in Detroit. It has a casino, restaurants, entertainment areas.
And the allegations are that the homeless in that area are scooped up, put into vans and taken many, many miles away. Detroit is a really large city, like 149 miles, and the allegations say they will take them and drop them off many miles from Greektown, and just dump them - on no pretext, just force them in there, and then they will have to try to find their way back.
And then, at many times, according to some of the reports, they'll tell them, take all the change out of your pockets, so they don't have any money to try to get bus fare. So they can't get back in any kind of a timely fashion. So they take hours and hours to get back to Greektown or any area downtown. They go through and will have to go through some pretty rough neighborhoods where they actually look to be easy prey for somebody because they know they're panhandlers and likely have some money on them.
And then by the time they can make it back downtown hours and hours later, the tourists are gone, and the problem of them creating some kind of a bad image is gone, as well.
HEADLEE: There were these same similar allegations in Detroit, specifically around Super Bowl time, that they were trying to clean up the downtown area by taking the homeless off the streets. Has the Detroit Police Department responded to these allegations?
KLINEFELTER: They have, but not with much. They say that they are looking into the allegations. They put a statement out, and I just talked to them last night and this morning. They said the statement is all they've got at the moment. It says that the Detroit police are looking at the - they have not received a copy of the complaint itself, which was sent to the Department of Justice. So they say, therefore, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment without reviewing the specific allegations.
But, you know, Celeste, you and I both have been in Detroit, oftentimes, for a while, and you hear this story a lot from a lot of the people that are out panhandling, that they get picked up. They get taken away. And, you know, if the allegations are true, in fact, the ACLU says that they did a year-long investigation that confirmed it. And they say that it violates many constitutional rights that homeless people would have, including the right to due process, the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizures - rights that don't go away because they've lost a job or their house.
KLINEFELTER: Yes. And, in fact, the police department has been trying to make a number of steps to try to have the federal government lift this consent decree from them. And some of the experts say it seems as if the department may have learned little from going through the experience of trying to be told you have to use not so much excessive force and some other areas that the federal government was trying to hammer them on. You know, this would - it would violate that, but it's also something that sounds like it's been going for some time.
And, as they're trying to push revitalization in the center of Detroit - this is right in the area where they're going to try to build new entertainment areas, where they're going to really try to draw people to, to get people into a city that's really struggling economically. This is something where, if this practice has been going on, it's likely to not stop, because they're going to want to get these homeless people out of the way of all this new development.
HEADLEE: I mean, Quinn, you and I have spoken with Detroit police officers many times over the course of our reporting duties. These are officers which - who are busy. They have a lot on their plates. They can't get done their normal duties. How do they get time, frankly, to pick up somebody from Greektown and drive, sometimes, over half an hour? I know that drive to East Detroit at least takes them 30 minutes...
KLINEFELTER: Yeah. You would...
HEADLEE: ...all the way out there, and drop them off.
KLINEFELTER: You know, somebody has to be telling them, Celeste. Somebody has to be ordering them, this is a priority. And, as you say, this is a place where, sometimes, people can't respond to robberies. The police can't because there's a...
KLINEFELTER: ...shooting somewhere else. Well, then, this is a priority of what officials there want done. And...
KLINEFELTER: You know - allegedly. Yes, yes, true. But it's allegations from the ACLU in the suit. It's also allegations from a lot of homeless people, a lot of homeless people in Detroit when you talk to them, that they say, yeah. We've been scooped up. We've been taken out. There's a guy that I talked to that had blood clots in his legs. Said he had to try to walk hours and hours, because they made him take bus fare money out of his pockets once he was dumped.
And I wondered, after a while, when you heard this, you know, could this actually have anything to it? But even though there was a number of reports, is it just kind of something that went viral among the homeless population? The ACLU is charging, with their investigation themselves, that it's not, that there is something to it. And the stories all have a very, very common theme, that somebody that appears homeless, that is in an area where you don't want somebody that is not going to present the proper image, and that they are taken and illegally put into a van and taken away.
HEADLEE: OK. But the DOJ doesn't actually open an investigation into every complaint that they get. What's the next step in the legal process here?
KLINEFELTER: Hard to know, because the U.S. attorney for the area in Detroit said that they received the complaint, but they're declining to comment whether they'll launch an investigation or not. The ACLU - in this case, there's no, like, monetary damages they're looking for. What they want is to have the police issue a directive to say that this is an illegal thing to banish homeless individuals from Greektown or any other neighborhood in Detroit, and that this practice should be stopped immediately.
And you haven't heard anything concrete from the law enforcement side. The U.S. attorney declining to comment, and the police say that they're just looking at the allegations.
HEADLEE: And no police officers being singled out for punishment or reprimand because they - this officer, he or she - has done this?
KLINEFELTER: No. You know, there wasn't any particular officers, as far as I can tell, that were identified in the complaints themselves. It's hard to identify some of the homeless, people because they feel very vulnerable. You know, I mean, I talk to them a lot when they ask for change. And you just kind of talk for a while, and then they'll open up.
But, you know, they're on the very lower edge of what's left of the economy here. And so they do not feel comfortable opening themselves up very much. To actually be plaintiffs of any type in a lawsuit is taking a pretty good step for them. I mean, there was one person that gave their whole name. The rest of them just wanted their first name and their initials. But they, you know, really, all to a person, say that this happens.
And you've got to look at it - I mean, in a pragmatic way, you can say, OK. They want to clean up this area, make it attractive, draw people into the city...
KLINEFELTER: ...which it so desperately needs.
HEADLEE: Oh, yeah.
KLINEFELTER: On the other hand, ethically, do you treat people like refuse just because they don't have a home?
HEADLEE: Well, I hope I don't. That's Quinn Klinefelter, senior news editor for WDET in Detroit. He joined us from their studios. Thanks, as always, Quinn.
KLINEFELTER: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.