The image tore across social media, prompting a “sincerest apology for the insensitive gesture” on Monday from Chief Lawrence Battiste, who placed responsibility on two unnamed officers.
“Although we do not condone panhandling and must enforce the city ordinances that limit panhandling, it is never our intent or desire as a police department to make light of those who find themselves in a homeless state,” Battiste wrote on Facebook.
“Rather, our position has always been to partner with community service providers to help us help those faced with homelessness with hope to improve their quality of life.”
The department did not return a request for comment, and it is unclear whether the officers have or will face disciplinary measures over the incident. A spokesperson told NBC News the officers are recent academy graduates.
Many Facebook users responded with anger to Battiste’s post, and several offered solutions tinged with poetic justice.
“Have them volunteer community time to a homeless shelter as a sanction,” one man wrote. “About 20 hours [each] should do it.”
The photo and subsequent fallout did not fray the positive relationship between police and homeless advocates in the area, said Derek Boulware, the chief executive of Housing First Inc., a homeless community resource nonprofit that serves Mobile and Baldwin counties. He described it as an isolated incident.
If anything, Boulware told The Washington Post on Tuesday, the incident raised awareness of a persistent issue of homelessness in the area.
“Homelessness is real. It’s in our community. And it’s not what you think it is,” Boulware said, describing a number of issues that can lead there, like substance abuse, mental health issues and financial problems.
“Life happens,” he said.
Micah West, a senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said poverty is “no laughing matter.”
“Every year Mobile jails dozens of people who are simply asking for help," West said. “Rather than criminalizing poverty, Mobile should work to identify how best to support and meet the needs of its homeless population.”
It was the second incident this week of a police department grabbing national headlines for a self-inflicted social media firestorm.
In Kansas, an officer claimed a McDonald’s employee wrote “f---ing pig” on his coffee cup. His chief amplified the story on Facebook, which turned the story into a viral sensation over the weekend. The chief later learned the officer had fabricated the entire ordeal, prompting the officer’s resignation.
Correction: A previous version of this story spelled Micah West’s first name wrong. It has been updated.