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The story of how Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo bought a pair of warm boots for a shoeless, homeless — or, at least, seemingly homeless — man in Times Square last month touched the hearts of hundreds of thousands after a tourist snapped a photo of the officer’s kind act and it went viral.
DePrimo, who has been assigned to Greenwich Village’s Sixth Precinct for the past couple of years, paid for the $75 boots himself. He didn’t have to think twice about the right thing to do.
“It was a very, very cold night,” he told the Daily News. “I could only imagine how cold that pavement was.”
According to Deputy Inspector Brandon del Pozo, the Sixth’s commanding officer, DePrimo, 25, is “a pretty modest and hardworking guy, pretty unassuming.”
“You can tell, even though he’s only had two years on the job, he’s got a bright career ahead of him,” the Village top cop added.
As for why DePrimo was in Times Square the night of Nov. 14, according to del Pozo, it was because he was on a detail called C.R.V. — Critical Response Vehicle — an antiterrorism deployment.
Del Pozo said it’s not surprising what DePrimo did.
“Police work is fundamentally an act of compassion,” he noted, “and I think he embodies that — at a personal level, not just at an institutional level. He reached into his pocket and came to the aid of a man — as a person.”
The accolades for DePrimo have been many. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly met with him to let him know he set a good example for other officers on the force. DePrimo has been on TV. And he’ll be featured in People magazine within the next two weeks, del Pozo said, though he’s not sure if the Village cop will make the cover.
As it turns out, there’s more to the story of the man that DePrimo aided. He was subsequently identified as Jeffrey Hillman, a 54-year-old military veteran and former standout basketball player at South Plainfield High School in New Jersey in the 1970s. How he came to be panhandling barefoot in New York City is no doubt a sad, wrenching story.
The News this week revealed that Hillman actually has an apartment in the Bronx, paid for through a combination of federal Section 8 rent vouchers and Social Security disability and veterans’ benefits.
That he has a home, however, doesn’t make Hillman a “scam artist,” as those who would demonize troubled souls like him have been quick to say. That other people have also bought shoes for Hillman in the past but he never seems to wear them also doesn’t make him a con man. Again, he’s obviously got serious issues.
And that Hillman is a more complicated figure and that the story is murkier doesn’t diminish DePrimo’s generous gesture. Indeed, it was great P.R. for the Police Department and a morale boost for cops.
Public mistrust of police is sown by the occasional bad apples — make that horrible apples — such as, recently, the East Village’s pair of “rape cops,” who clearly got a break from a jury that had watched way too much “C.S.I.” and felt that forensic evidence was needed to prove that these rogue officers had done what they obviously returned to the intoxicated victim’s apartment multiple times to do.
Returning to Hillman, again, this is not a bad story of an immoral person, at least not as far as we can tell, but of a troubled person. We all have friends or family members who suffer from these kind of problems to varying degrees — mental illness, possibly substance abuse. If anything, this story reminds us to have compassion for individuals like these who have fallen on hard times, some of whom might be our own loved ones.
Whether Hillman has an entire collection of donated boots he never wears, that he has a subsidized apartment, in the end, it just doesn’t matter.
What matters is that he needs help, and Officer DePrimo selflessly responded to that need. That’s genuine — and nothing can diminish his act.