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Behind the Badge: In New York City Homeless Shelters, the Same ‘Peace Officers’ Abuse Residents

Previously unreleased disciplinary files expose officers who beat, slap, and pepper spray the residents they’re supposed to protect. Most are back at work within a month.

In April 2018, at a New York City intake center for homeless families, Melina Cardona and five other city employees handcuffed a woman who had just walked in to get information about emergency housing. They applied the cuffs in a manner “so excessive,” they fractured her arm.

At the time, Cardona was a peace officer with the New York City Department of Homeless Services Police, an obscure, approximately 480-member agency that maintains security throughout the shelters the city owns and operates. Department of Homeless Services (DHS) officers “work with New York City’s most vulnerable population,” as a former deputy commissioner said in a recent recruitment video.

They are “the original community police officers.”

Although DHS’s peace officers are given broad powers, they are not police officers. They carry non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray, batons, and Tasers, and they are given the power to detain, not arrest. Nevertheless, they have been training with the NYPD since 2017.

And peace officers still have the ability to mistreat the people they are employed to protect. An investigation by a team of journalists reporting for MuckRock and New York Focus offers a first-of-its-kind look at how these officers are held accountable — and how long their behavior can go unchecked. Previously-unreleased disciplinary files show that it often takes DHS a half a year or more to suspend officers found guilty of misconduct. Those who do land a timely suspension tend to be back at work within a month.

If they’ve done it once, they’re likely to do it twice: Through public records requests, MuckRock and New York Focus uncovered disciplinary incidents involving 31 officers, many of them repeat offenders. Just three officers were involved in more than a third of all incidents.

Cardona is one of them. Three months after the excessive handcuffing, she had to be “physically restrained” after she “charged at” a shelter resident while the resident’s daughter watched. According to a department document, the daughter was “visibly upset and disturbed” by Cardona’s actions.

The department eventually suspended her for over a month.

According to Cardona, the problem wasn’t just that she violated protocol, but that she was never taught to do better. “When I was in the academy, there was not much training on how to detain someone,” she told MuckRock and New York Focus.

The revelations come as the city’s growing unhoused population has become increasingly reliant on shelters, with 85,000 people sleeping in the city’s shelters as of last Sunday night. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, this is “the highest number since the city started keeping count forty years ago.”

“Ensuring the health and safety of shelter residents and staff is a top priority and every aspect of our delivery of services takes a trauma-informed and client-centered approach,” wrote a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which manages DHS, in a statement sent after publication. “All DHS staff are trained to lead with care and compassion when engaging with clients and effectively deploy de-escalation techniques when warranted.”

The office of New York City Mayor Eric Adams did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment for this story. Teamsters Local 237, the local union that represents DHS peace officers, responded with a statement that “237 does not comment on legal matters involving our members.”

“There’s a national problem of agencies being apathetic to officers with serious histories of misconduct,” said Rachel Moran, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who specializes in police accountability.

The 66 total incidents of misconduct — spanning from 1998 to 2023 — likely do not represent the agency’s complete disciplinary records. DHS shared the files with district attorneys’ offices to flag officers whose credibility might be called into question in a potential criminal trial. MuckRock and New York Focus found that DHS only started sharing these files after the June 2020 repeal of 50-a, a controversial civil rights law that shielded police disciplinary files from the public.

All of the incidents in these records were deemed credible following the department’s internal investigations. Data about complaints that were not deemed credible have not been released.

The records detail acts of wrongdoing, policies violated and disciplinary punishments issued to officers. They document a range of misconduct, from refusal to work overtime and misplacement of a department badge to repeated sexual harassment of colleagues and excessive use of force.

When officers misbehave, their discipline can be costly for the public. “Civilians pay a huge amount of money for police misconduct,” Moran said. Some big settlements catch public attention, “but it’s these huge daily costs of typical, daily misconduct and suspension that people need to worry about.”

A little over a year after she charged at a shelter resident, Cardona threatened a fellow officer after hearing that she had insulted her. “You made [the special officer] fear for her safety,” the department wrote in a disciplinary notice, “​​and you had to be escorted away.”

Cardona disputed the department’s characterization of the event, saying that the other officer started the fight while off duty.

“That is so far from the truth,” Cardona told MuckRock and New York Focus. “This girl was not in uniform. She came there to pick up some things and asked me to speak outside. She started to fight me. It was really childish.”

Cardona also falsified a NYC Health + Hospitals permit to illegally park her vehicle closer to her workplace, and she failed to notify the department when she was arrested for attempted shoplifting.

In an interview, Cardona admitted to using the falsified plate, and she alleged that others did the same. Cardona also said that the shoplifting charges were later dropped, and a supervisor had told her to wait to report them.

Cardona was suspended for six additional minor incidents, which included losing her uniform hat and failing to submit her timesheet in a timely manner. Between 2017 and 2022, she accumulated almost five months of suspensions across 11 separate disciplinary infractions.

“We can’t suspend and terminate as often as we may want to to address these situations because there’s just the realities of staffing,” said Jeffrey Coots, the director of From Punishment to Public Health, a public safety and health policy organization. “It makes it worse for the people that are left. And so it’s one of those ‘no good option’ situations.”

“Unbecoming of a peace officer and civil servant”

The Department of Homeless Service’s current Peace Officer Guide, also obtained by MuckRock and New York Focus and made public for the first time, states that “the primary duty of all DHS Peace Officers is to protect human life,” and that officers must use “the amount of force that is objectively reasonable under the circumstances.”

Law enforcement officers are “the only people that are really allowed to use physical force,” Coots explained. “If two citizens use physical force against each other, that’s assault.”

About one-fifth of all the incidents of misconduct reviewed were cases of excessive use of force. All of them resulted in injuries to residents. Most were perpetrated by repeat offenders.

James DiDonato, another repeat offender, was a peace officer with DHS for “over 18 years,” according to a comment he left on Facebook. In September 2022, he was called to break up an argument between two shelter residents. One of the residents walked into the hall and turned around to let DiDonato handcuff him.

“No, we’re going to have a little talk downstairs,” DiDonato responded, according to the department’s review of his body camera footage. “I’m old school… we’re going to go in the back and have a little talk.”

DiDonato pushed the resident into an elevator and slammed him against a wall. He turned off his body camera.

According to the department’s investigation, DiDonato then shoved the man backward, forcing him outside the facility and kicking him “three times in the rear end while pushing him outside.”

DiDonato “failed to administer any aid,” the department noted, and the resident “was subsequently brought by ambulance to the hospital.” This was “excessive force” in a manner “unbecoming of a police officer,” the department wrote.

The department uses several factors, such as the nature of the circumstances, the actions of an officer, the “immediate perceived threat,” and the “presence of a hostile crowd or agitators” to determine if an officer’s force is “objectively reasonable.”

DHS does not “tolerate violence against or amongst clients, and the agency has robust accountability mechanisms in place,” the social services spokesperson wrote. According to the spokesperson, the mechanisms address “any anomalous and egregious instances of inappropriate use of force or violation of agency best practices while complying with Civil Service Law and due process.”

In another incident, DiDonato was arrested while off duty. He had approached a car, parked illegally in a “No Parking” zone, with an NYPD placard on the windshield. After arguing with the car’s owner, an NYPD traffic supervisor, DiDonato slammed the car door on the traffic supervisor’s thumb. The traffic supervisor called 9-1-1.

As DiDonato tried to flee the scene, the traffic supervisor, his wife, and his daughter gave chase. An onlooker soon joined the pursuit. DiDonato pulled out his personal pepper spray. He sprayed the whole family and the onlooker.

DiDonato was arrested for assault and eventually suspended for almost two months over this incident. Peace officers are required to immediately self-report any arrests, and it’s unclear whether DiDonato did. He was not penalized for failing to do so. The summer after his suspension, he was honored for “excellent duty” during a DHS awards ceremony.

In the following two years, he racked up two more disciplinary incidents, which he resolved by resigning from the Department of Homeless Services Police.

“We remind you that you are expected to conform to department regulations”

Even when incidents of misconduct appear similar, suspensions can vary greatly. Out of 14 incidents described by the Department as involving “excessive use of force,” for example, suspensions varied from five to 55 days.

The department’s formal disciplinary process — used to evaluate cases in which the department believes more than five days of suspension are warranted — involves a complicated negotiation between the officer, their union representative and a DHS attorney. It often takes DHS six months or more to formally suspend an officer who committed wrongdoing.

This delay can dilute the effectiveness of discipline as a means of preventing further incidents. “The best thing that you can do is make clear to the rest of the staff as well that there are repercussions for behaving in that way,” Coots said. “A challenge that we see in a lot of public service, public safety agencies, is that the disciplinary process just takes forever.”

To avoid this delay, supervisors can choose to implement an immediate suspension of up to one month for serious incidents. Though this punishment is swift, it allows officers who have hurt residents to the point of hospitalization to return to work within a month.

When the suspension is not immediately applied, it can take years for officers to face any discipline.

In one case, an officer who slapped, punched and pulled the hair of a client — who had already been tased and briefly lost consciousness after she resisted being handcuffed — was not suspended until three years later.

In another incident, an officer who hit a resident with his baton and kicked him until he was bleeding profusely didn’t receive a suspension until almost a year later. The officer was later promoted to sergeant. As a sergeant, he pepper sprayed a man who “lay on the floor, immobilized” with three officers holding him down, according to the report.

In that case, the sergeant was immediately suspended for five days. It is unclear, however, if he ever faced further punishment. DHS has provided no records about further disciplinary proceedings.

In some cases, officers have committed a second act of misconduct before the first one is formally resolved. The department then combines both incidents and issues a suspension meant to cover multiple incidents.

In suspension notices covering three of DiDonato’s six cases, punishments were issued three months or more after the underlying incident. After DiDonato’s off-duty arrest for assault, for example, it took over a year for the department to suspend him.

In her five formal punishments, it took the agency anywhere between two months and two years to suspend Cardona. At least three times, she was awaiting formal punishment for one violation when she committed another, records show.

Cardona said that because she was constantly involved in incidents requiring use of force and calls for backup, and that her supervisors could “pick and choose” when to write her up for disciplinary action. She felt that she faced more scrutiny from her supervisors after she returned from maternity leave.

Near the end of 2022, Cardona said she was asked to meet with DHS administrators in their downtown headquarters. She told MuckRock and New York Focus she was under investigation for another use-of-force incident, and she had been asked to testify about a sergeant who was also involved.

“Me and my sergeant got into a physical altercation with a client and they wanted me to say things,” Cardona explained. “They told me, ‘You are not here for what you did. We want her.’”

Cardona began to contemplate leaving the department. On one of the last days that she planned to work, a sergeant accidentally pepper sprayed her while they tried to detain a shelter resident.

“That was a sign,” Cardona said. “I had to go.”

Cardona left the Department of Homeless Services in 2022. “Even with the suspensions,” she said. “I was able to move into another city job,” she said.

Cardona is now a substitute teaching assistant with the New York City’s Department of Education.

UPDATE: April 18, 2024 — This story has been updated to reflect the April 2024 DHS peace officer head count of 480, which a department spokesperson provided after publication. Previously, the story listed 700 officers, the 2018 number.

This story has also been updated to include a statement a DHS spokesperson sent after publication.

About this story

A team of reporters working with MuckRock and New York Focus filed open-records requests to New York City’s Homeless Services Police for all disciplinary files the agency is required to disclose under under Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. United States, two cases that force police departments and prosecutors to flag officers who may be untrustworthy in court. The agency is required to provide these documents to the public after the June 2020 repeal of 50-a, a law that had previously kept police disciplinary files secret.

Over several months, the team then reviewed these documents and created a database of the incidents to analyze for trends in which officers were responsible for misconduct and how that misconduct was handled by the agency. The data and methodology are available on GitHub. The documents, published for the first time, are on DocumentCloud.

This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.