Photo of encounter between officer and homeless man went viral

Kevin Byrne

Amid the hustle and bustle of the crowded, vibrant streets of Times Square in New York City, a lot can go unnoticed.

Tourists flock to the bevy of restaurants and stores that are nestled under skyscrapers festooned with dazzling signage and towering billboards. Commuters scurry to and from their nearest subway stations looking to get to their destinations as quickly as possible.

But on the night of Nov. 14, 2012, Larry DePrimo noticed something. As a member of the New York Police Department, DePrimo, 25 at the time, was on duty that night, manning a post at W. 44th St. and Broadway, according to The New York Daily News.

During his patrol, DePrimo encountered a homeless man, sitting barefoot in the frigid cold on the sidewalk. Temperatures that night in New York City were in the mid-30s, below average for that time of year. DePrimo had been alerted to the man after hearing a passerby chuckle at the man's condition, the Daily News reported.

After speaking to the man, later identified as Jeffrey Hillman, a U.S. Army veteran, DePrimo went inside a nearby Skechers store to purchase footwear for the man, using his own money to buy a pair of shoes and socks.

Unbeknownst to DePrimo, the encounter was being closely monitored by a tourist named Jennifer Foster, who was visiting the city with her husband from Arizona. Foster had seen Hillman the night before and was prepared to give him some money when DePrimo approached with a pair of all-weather boots and socks.

(New York Police Department via Jennifer Foster)

As she watched the police officer help Hillman put on the socks and boots, Foster snapped a photo of the altruistic act.

She eventually relayed the heartwarming story in a letter to the police department, which shared the tale and the photo on its Facebook page. It promptly went viral. Today the post has nearly 600,000 reactions, about 46,000 comments along with 208,000 shares.

"Right when I was about to approach, one of your officers came up behind him," Foster wrote. "The officer said, ‘I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let's put them on and take care of you.'"

Foster, who had a law enforcement background, said she had never been so impressed in her life.

"I did not get the officer's name. It is important, I think, for all of us to remember the real reason we are in this line of work," she wrote. "The reminder this officer gave to our profession in his presentation of human kindness has not been lost on myself or any of the Arizona law enforcement officials with whom this story has been shared."

During the month of December, AccuWeather is highlighting the heroic people who carried out selfless acts during harsh weather conditions and helped those in need. Few in the world have proven as selfless in the face of challenging conditions as DePrimo did that night.

Once identified, DePrimo took a bit of a media tour, appearing on NBC's Today show, along with Foster, along with making several other network TV appearances.

Larry DePrimo as seen in 2011. (Photo/New York Police Department)

"The two things that really stuck out in my mind that night were just how cold it was and that this was the most polite gentleman I've ever met and I knew I had to help him," DePrimo said on the Today show.

DePrimo, who according to ABC News was still living with his parents at the time, went on to say that he didn't think about the money when he made his decision and just wanted to do what he could to help the man.

"I said, 'Listen there's an elderly man, he doesn't have any shoes or socks on. I don't care what the price is, we just gotta help him out,'" he recalled.

AccuWeather reached out to DePrimo for a comment to the story all these years later, but did not receive a response.

Several weeks later the story took an unexpected twist, when it was reported that Hillman was not homeless, although he had been living on the streets at a previous point in his life.

The Daily News reported that Hillman had been living in an apartment in the Bronx that was paid for through a combination of federal Section 8 rent vouchers, social security disability and veterans benefits.

Multiple news outlets were able to track down Hillman and confirm that he frequently slept outdoors and panhandled around the Upper West Side of Manhattan despite having housing. He was also seen without the boots DePrimo purchased.

Hillman's behavior did raise questions from other members of law enforcement, including former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly.

According to CBS New York, Kelly said Hillman may have been trying to scam DePrimo.

"That's life in New York in terms of people who try to scam us. We know that that happens," Kelly told the news station. "But it was a generous act of kindness."

Hillman denied he was looking to scam the officer when interviewed by CBS New York.

"I sure didn't force him to do it, sir," he said.

Hillman, who also spoke with The New York Times not long after the interaction with DePrimo, said he was grateful for the officer's actions, although he appeared disgruntled that his picture was taken and shared around the world.

"I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?" he told the Times. "This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie."

"I appreciate what the officer did, don't get me wrong," Hillman said. "I wish there were more people like him in the world."