As a homeless black veteran, I was paid $10 to stand in a police lineup

The streets of New York are tougher for some more than others.
The streets of New York are tougher for some more than others.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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I’d always wanted to stand in a police lineup. Ever since I was as a kid, television made it seem so macho to be on the other side of the glass—dangerous-looking enough to be chosen to stand against the height line, mild-mannered enough to not be picked. I just didn’t ever think it’d be under these circumstances.

“But what if they lock us up?” my friend Gary asked. I sort of laughed. We were innocent, after all. What did we have to worry about?

I looked into his eyes to find humor, or at least some reassurance. But he wasn’t smiling, his eyes not playful. My smile turned into a frown because I knew what he was hinting at: Who would miss a homeless veteran of color like us? Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the US veteran population respectively. It would be so easy to charge one of us with a heinous crime and blame it on war fatigue and a predisposition for violence.

I was one of these homeless vets primarily because I’d never successfully transitioned from sailor to civilian. My exit from the navy was also the entrance to the height of the recession in 2008. I couldn’t find suitable employment, and safe housing was too expensive. I was also suffering from a litany of mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which had begun during my service and was left unchecked because I refused to accept that anything was wrong with me.

Gary and I were both staying at a shelter for veterans in Queens. The building was adorned with several military flags on the outside and a huge patriotic mural on the inside, an epic tale of an eagle, stars, stripes, and fireworks. We were both wounded veterans with similar politics and ages; I was 25, he was 30. We could bond over our shared paranoia—and a lack of medication to treat it.

Every gentleman in the building had a cubicle to himself—literally. Each standard-sized office cubicle had been outfitted with a bed frame and mattress, desk, chair, and standup locker. It was a much better, much cleaner environment than the other homeless accommodations I’d become used to in the six months I’d been on the streets.

A loudspeaker in the shelter normally announced things such as meal times: oatmeal or dry cereal for breakfast, and gummy rice or pasta with steamed vegetables for lunch and dinner. But today, they were asking if men wanted to earn ten bucks working for the “boys in blue.” In addition to an age limit, candidates for this police exercise had to be black and 5’10” or less, clean-shaven, and have no identifiable marks on their faces. An hour after the announcement, the staff became desperate. They fanned out and explored the halls of the building, the basketball court, the library, the television room. The voice on the speaker upped the price to $15. I’d decided to go before this, but that number only cemented my eagerness. Gary was in as well, and they chose two other men to come to the station. The four of us loaded ourselves into a navy-blue cop van with the white NYPD letters.

“Do they do this a lot, get people to stand in lineups?” one guy whispered in the back of the van.

“I heard that they do it, like, once a week,” the other responded. “We got a smaller group, so we might even get 20 bucks today.”

Gary hadn’t done one of these lineups before, so neither of us knew how true this statement was. In fact, police often obtain participants for police lineups from off the streets, but we didn’t know that at the time. Our naivety on the subject only heightened our level of distrust. As we neared our destination, our voices became calmer and softer. Once the doors to the van opened, nobody said a word.

“Gentlemen,” a policeman gestured. “Follow me, please.” The small group of homeless black men did as he said, no questions asked. I felt less-than. It was as if his status as a white cop, this untouchable figure, held all the power in the world.

We were told to wait and grab some coffee and donuts, but my anxiety conquered my hunger. The guy next to me picked up a Fortune magazine. The irony of a periodical celebrating free wealthy men inside a police station overcrowded with poor criminals—and homeless men hauled in to stand in police lineups—wasn’t lost on us.

Next, sheets of paper were passed around with the accused’s mugshot in black and white. It also included some other identifying details. Nineteen—he was just a kid. Aggravated robbery. First offense. I’m not entirely sure why we needed this information, but the details made me think the cops had already decided he wasn’t innocent. I thought he looked guilty myself: He seemed too confident in his mugshot, a little smirk hovering at the corners of his mouth.

They gave us brown shirts to put on, because that’s how the suspect had been dressed. Two African-American undercover cops came into the room, also wearing brown shirts. The undercover cops served a dual purpose: Six random men was a good number for the witness to select from and gave a decent enough variety of features. But in the event the accused got violent, there would be two law enforcement officers in the room to quash it.

Finally, we entered the lineup room. There was a one-way mirror across from us, which I expected, but there was a long and slender wooden bench for us to sit down on that I didn’t expect. Shouldn’t we have been standing for a height comparison?

The door opened and the suspect stepped in, all jokes and giggles. Even the police officers were laughing.

“Oh, what?” he said, gesturing to us. “Ya’ll s’posed to look like me?” We all laughed. It was hard not to like this guy. He was cheerful and energetic and he smiled as if this was a sunny day and we had all gathered to play frisbee in Central Park. He used his hands, palms up, to speak with us, as if he had nothing to hide. Maybe someone had gotten a bad tip? He was so calm and jolly—this guy seemed innocent. The youngster was positioned between Gary and me, and then we all sat on the bench.

But his mannerisms changed as soon as we were seated. As we held up our numbers and looked stoically into the mirror, the bench started shaking. At first I thought maybe we were getting hit with an earthquake. But it was the kid, shaking as if tomorrow was his execution.

There was no way his accuser couldn’t have told that this one guy was not like the others. He was breathing heavily, with a small hint of a whimper. It took so much effort not to look at him. In that moment, I felt sorry for him but also glad that he was so clearly guilty and would get his comeuppance. This relief was immediately followed by disgust at myself for feeling good that another young black man would be entering the system. How could I feel joy over such a thing? I was glad it wasn’t me, but I also couldn’t help wishing it wasn’t him either.

We sat there for a good 30 seconds. The kid’s torrential fit of spasms and noises made that 30 seconds exponentially longer. I barely made out the finger poking the glass from the other side of the mirror toward the boy. The decision was made, and nothing could have been louder than his silence. His sounds were gone, the tremors of his body were gone, his soul was gone. He must have perished inside, because his eyes were dead.

Once the decision was made, the door was thrust open.

“Stand up,” said the first officer we’d met in the building. “Let’s go, move it along.” The officer’s thick Manhattan accent was much more pronounced than I had first recalled. I now felt that the police had only been pretending to treat us with respect before. As we were ushered out the room, the 19-year-old was placed in handcuffs and forcefully pushed in the opposite direction from where we were headed. He could hardly hold himself up.

I caught a glimpse of the white woman, his accuser. She was crying. I feared she thought we were all guilty, in some way. I’m guessing she didn’t know how the police had acquired our services—television never mentions how those guys for the lineup got there. I wanted to let her know that we felt sorry for what had happened to her, that we had served our country for people like her. But it wouldn’t have been appropriate. And I also wanted to get out of that station as quickly as possible. I was ready for my $15 dollars—but we only ever got ten.

I left that station grateful for the money I’d earned and for my own relative innocence. If convicted, that man wouldn’t see the outside for anywhere from seven to 25 years, and that was with good behavior. I realized that I could be that young kid some months from now, desperate and foolish enough to make a mistake that would take my youth away. We didn’t just look similar—we both were on the path to a life without agency.

And I didn’t want that to happen. I may have been in that homeless shelter, but I didn’t have to stay homeless. So I made an honest effort to be better than I was—and I became better. That spring, I spent every day searching for housing, a job, and other opportunities whenever and wherever possible. I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn with a roommate by June. I had started college courses by that September, and I was settled enough to go speak to other vets going through similar struggles by winter. And all it took was a police lineup, a bit of fear, and the promise of $10 dollars to get me started.