FORT LAUDERDALE — A video released online shows a Fort Lauderdale police officer slapping a homeless man across the face after he sought to use the restroom at the public bus station, adding to existing concerns over the city’s questionable treatment of the homeless.
The video begins by showing the man, Bruce Leclair, walking through the Broward Central Bus Terminal, while nine-year veteran police officer Victor Ramirez follows behind, putting on a pair of blue disposable gloves.
Moments later, Ramirez approaches Leclair and reaches out for his arm. Leclair pulls away, and after a few seconds of dialogue, Ramirez shoves him to the ground. Leclair curses at the officer.
“Relax. I am telling you right now what’s going to happen,” Ramirez states. “I’m escorting you out right now.”
“I want to go pee,” Leclair replies.
“You are not going to go pee,” Ramirez responds. “You are not supposed to be here.”
He then tells Leclair that he will put him in the police car if he resists, and orders him to get up off the ground. Seconds later, Ramirez slaps the homeless man across the face. The sound of the smack cracks out, and the person recording the incident gasps.
“I’m not [expletive] with you. Don’t [expletive] touch me,” Ramirez snaps. “Put your hands behind your back.”
Leclair is taken into custody and transported to jail, where he was taken in on trespassing charges. He was later released.
“I have the utmost respect for law enforcement officers,” Laclair told the Sun-Sentinel following his release. “Usually they see you doing something wrong and they tell you to stop. But this guy, he has personal problems.”
According to reports, video of the incident was shared on Facebook, and soon made it to the desk of Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Franklin Adderley. Adderly then placed Ramirez on paid leave pending an investigation. A press conference was held about the incident on Tuesday, during which time City Manager Lee Feldman called the video “clearly disturbing.”
But Feldman was also asked during the conference whether he believes the city has a track record of mistreating the homeless as other incidents have been reported in the past.
“Does the city have an image problem when it comes to homeless issues, would you say? And does this contribute to that?” the reporter asked.
“I’m not sure we have an image problem,” Feldman replied. “We have problems of misperceptions of how we treat the homeless. … We’ve said from the beginning that transients in neighborhoods that don’t have proper shelter or proper facilities cause an issue in perception of safety.”
He said that Ramirez was policing the bus terminal because “there were safety concerns at that bus terminal.”
The Fort Lauderdale City Commission states that its mission is “to represent the public interest, promote quick, courteous response to residents’ problems, provide leadership and direction for the City’s future, and assure the present and future fiscal integrity of the municipal government.”
As the Fort Lauderdale Police Department was also contacted about the video footage, Officer Pete Haritos, who was sued in 2012 for allegedly shooting a dog, advised to “look up the Florida state statues on police officer use of force, and then look at the video again, and you’ll probably get some answers to what transpired there.” When asked for further clarification whether he believed Ramirez’ actions were justified, he paused and said, “Well, I’m not going to give you any information on that. [The higher ups] are entitled to tell you whatever they want to.”
Fort Lauderdale has come under fire in recent years for its restrictions on feeding the homeless, even to the point of arresting those who violate laws requiring that feeding stations be away from residential areas and include portable toilets. In December, Broward County Judge Thomas Lynch issued an order banning the city from enforcing the law, which carried punishments of “up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500.”
In January, the Fort Lauderdale branch of Food Not Bombs filed a lawsuit over the regulations as it had been feeding the homeless each week in Stranahan Park. Two others who regularly feed the homeless, 91-year-old Arnold Abott, who made headlines after being arrested in November, and Episcopalian Mark Sims, who was among the first to be charged, have likewise filed suit.
“What the city is doing by cutting out feeding is very simple: they are forcing homeless people to go dumpster-diving all over again. They will steal,” Abbott told reporters following the incident. “That’s what the mayor is forcing the homeless to do.”
“[The homeless are] being chased all over the city from one side of the railroad tracks to the other,” local activist Jeff Weinberger also told Local10 News following the release of the recent video. “We happened to catch the incarceration of two homeless men today who were resting in an empty parking lot.”
Food Not Bombs, the Peanut Butter & Jelly Project and Love Thy Neighbor held a rally earlier this month in an effort to oust the current mayor, Jack Seiler, who supports the current regulations. Seiler has been silent about the Ramirez-Leclair situation and was absent from Tuesday’s press conference.
Some businesses have stated that the homeless take away from the economy and tourism.