‘Men in Black’

May 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

Cedric Biggs usually spends his nights sleeping in Detroit's Hart Plaza and his days sitting on a stoop in the Greektown restaurant district, where he shakes a Styrofoam cup at passersby, hoping to catch a few coins.

As long as the sun is out, he says, there's typically no hassle. It's when twilight approaches that he begins to look around nervously, because that's when the private security crew area panhandlers have dubbed the "men in black" shows up for work.

"They wear black khakis, black jackets and black hats," he says. "You can't be on Greektown property. They get into physical altercations with [panhandlers]. They grab 'em, take them off. They work with the police standing right there not doing something."

The alleged assailants are members of an eight-man security squad hired by the Greektown Merchants Association in the fall of 2005 after the Police Department reduced the number of officers patrolling the area.

Panhandlers claim the guards became more aggressive in the weeks leading up to the city's Super Bowl celebration in February, and that the rough stuff has continued since then.

So far this year three panhandlers have filed complaints alleging that they've been battered by members of the security team, says Sgt. Eren Stephens, a department spokeswoman.

Ron Scott, spokesman for the local activist group Coalition Against Police Brutality, says he's been in contact with about 12 panhandlers who claim to have been assaulted by members of the security crew. Some of the panhandlers are afraid to come forward, Scott says, because of outstanding warrants against them for such misdemeanors as urinating in public.

Debra Hart tells Metro Times she was panhandling near Greektown Casino on Jan. 20, when two of the men in black walked up to her.

"They came and told me to get out of Greektown," she alleges. "Then one said, 'I hate to do this,' and sprayed me with Mace."

Roosevelt Dean, a homeless man who also stays in Hart Plaza, says he had an encounter with two of the men in black when he stopped in front of a store on Monroe Street the evening of March 3.

"One of them grabbed me," he says. "The other one punched me in my face several times," he says. "Told me I wasn't allowed to walk the streets of Greektown anymore, anywhere in Greektown. So I took off."

Both Dean and Hart filed formal complaints at the Police Department's 1st Precinct on Beaubien Street, adjacent to the Greektown area.

A third complaint was filed by Otis Jones, a homeless man who claims he saw two of the men in black roughing up a panhandler in front of the Bouzouki Club, a strip club on Lafayette Street. Jones claims the two men identified themselves as police officers and ordered him to move along when he tried to intervene.

"They're saying they're police," Jones says. "So I told them, 'If you're the police, arrest me.'"

Instead, alleges Jones, one of them punched him in the face several times.

Jones also says he was given the run-around when he tried to file a report, having to wait two hours before officers from the 1st Precinct would accompany him as he pointed out his alleged assailants. When they did find the men, Jones says, the officers asked him how he could be so sure it was them.

Police Department spokesman Sgt. Omar Feliciano says the department is investigating the complaints filed by Dean, Hart and Jones, but that he's prohibited from providing information about ongoing investigations.

No arrests have been made. Police say their investigation has gone slowly because of difficulties in reaching the panhandlers for information.

Scott says most of the people making complaints can be found by visiting the local homeless shelters. Even if they're not there, he adds, other people who know their whereabouts will be.

"I may not always find them every time I want to see them," he says, "but I do find them."

Joyce Wiswell, spokeswoman for the merchant's association, says the complaints are just mischief-making on the part of the panhandlers. After the Detroit Police Department cut the number of officers patrolling the area, she says, Greektown merchants felt it necessary to hire the security team. The cost is $4,000 a week. She says that most, if not all, of the eight men are laid-off Detroit police officers.

"The panhandlers were getting extremely aggressive with visitors to Greektown, so [the merchants] hired their own private security guards," she says. "They felt it was important."

In her opinion, the panhandlers' reports of physical abuse are untrue. After Jones called her office to voice his complaints in late February, Wiswell attended a security team meeting to get their side of the story.

"The security officers swear nothing has happened," she says. "If something was happening, they'd be fired fast."

Wiswell says she wasn't aware that Dean and Hart had also formally filed complaints alleging assault.

Safety is an important image to project for Greektown. Steve Georgiou, owner of Olympia Restaurant and president of the merchant's association, says the area is "instrumental" for any Detroit revival, and its reputation as a trouble-free zone for tourists is crucial for the businesses there. He doesn't put much stock in the reports by panhandlers.

"I can't believe that this is happening," he says. The security officers "aren't just people we give a suit and tell to walk the streets. They're police officers. They're trained to talk to people. They're told not to touch anyone, just to encourage people to leave the area if they're causing problems. Their purpose is to challenge the panhandlers who are harassing people in Greektown."

Begging for food or money on the street was prohibited by Detroit city ordinance until 1998, when the ban was ruled unconstitutional, says police spokeswoman Stephens.

Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU, says that begging is generally viewed as constitutionally protected free speech, and that any ordinance barring it must be very narrowly crafted to survive a court challenge.

"The Detroit Police Department has an obligation to protect the free speech rights of these panhandlers," Steinberg says.

The Coalition Against Police Brutality's Scott says the group is considering filing a class action lawsuit against the merchants association on behalf of the beggars.

"These people are being treated in a manner that is inhumane and brutal," he says of the homeless people who have come to him. "Some of these [security guards] are violating their basic civil and human rights. We're not going to tolerate it. If it happens to them, it can happen to anybody."

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected] or call