Police State Mindset Sees One-Year-Old and Mother as Threat

The mission of the New York City Police Department is to enhance the quality of life in New York City by working in partnership with the community to enforce the law, preserve peace, reduce fear, and maintain order. The Department is committed to accomplishing its mission of protecting the lives and property of all citizens of New York City by treating every citizen with compassion, courtesy, professionalism, and respect….

— Mission and Values of NYPD, issued April 5, 2016

This mission was spectacularly NOT accomplished on Friday afternoon, December 7, at a Brooklyn office of the city’s HRA – Human Resources Administration (irony presumably unintended). The stunningly abject failure of police to live up to their professed mission featured several police officers violently separating a one-year-old boy from his mother as she lay on the floor crying for help. The end of the event was documented in a video posted on Facebook the same day by a witness who commented:

So I’m At 275 Bergen Street Handling My Business Or Whatever & There Wasn’t Any More Chairs For This Lady To Sit Down So She Sat In The Corner On The Floor. The Security Guard Came Over Said What Ever She Said To Her & She Made The Security Guard Feel Dumb So She Called The Cops On Her & This Was The Outcome SMH Mind You She Had Her Baby In Her Hands The Whole Time??????????????? I’m So Fucking Disgusted with The NYPD EVRYBODY PLEASE SHARE!!! I’m a mother myself & I would’ve lost my fucking mind if this was me they would’ve had to kill me????

Here’s what apparently happened, starting with the arrival of Jazmine Headley, 23, at the HRA office, carrying her one-year-old son. She was there to get a child care credit so that she could take a cleaning job. One account has her waiting four hours. She had no place to sit but the floor. None of the human resources workers offered her an extra chair. Instead, a security guard told this woman holding an infant that she had to stand. When Jazmine Headley refused to stand, the security guard or someone else called the cops.

That might not have been a bad thing, since New York has recently started training its police officers in de-escalation techniques that presumably help to “preserve peace, reduce fear, and maintain order.” How hard would it have been to sort out a situation where a mother and child are waiting patiently to get served? That really depends on the mindset of the enforcement officers. The security guards had already escalated a non-event into a confrontation. The NYPD officers, mostly (or all) women, turned it into a human rights violation, an unjustified assault on both the mother and the infant. When bystanders objected to the way the cops were acting, one of the cops threatened the bystanders with a taser. A police spokesman later refused to identify any of the cops involved or to say they had followed proper protocols.

This really should have been a no-brainer for every authority figure involved. A woman and her baby sitting in a corner pose what kind of threat to whom? Who is responsible for the way the hired security guards impose “order”? Where is the simple humanity of those who run a crowded “human resources” office? What possible rationale does anyone have for demanding that the woman stand with her child while she waits her turn? Why did the police not de-escalate the non-threatening situation instead of turning it into a violent arrest of the mother and violent detention of the infant? No wonder the video went viral and sparked widespread outrage.

Official response by higher-ups was little better and came days later. Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the police assault was “a disturbing incident.” The NYPD issued a statement calling the assault “troubling.” The police statement apparently misrepresented the sequence of events, claiming HRA security “made unsuccessful attempts to remove this individual from the facility due to her disorderly conduct towards others and for obstructing the hallway.” The NYPD statement includes this inconsistent passage:

The woman was then informed by police numerous times to leave the location, and she refused. As NYPD officers were attempting to convince the woman to depart the facility, HRA peace officers brought the woman to the floor. NYPD officers then attempted to place her under arrest. She refused to comply with officers’ orders, and was then taken into custody.

She was “informed” to leave? Why? Did she not have every right to be there? What right did any of the authorities have to raise this barrier to her finding work when it was the job of at least some of them to help her? “HRA peace officers brought the woman to the floor.” What? She was standing, then tackled? With a child in her arms? Then she was arrested for what, littering? And why does the NYPD statement omit the child’s existence, as well as the assault on the child? After all, one of the charges against Headley was “acting in a manner injurious to a child.”

The bogus arrest of a young black woman on a Friday in Brooklyn didn’t generate much news coverage until the video went viral and public reaction pushed it into the news on December 9. The next day NY Police Commissioner James O’Neill tweeted:

As we investigate Friday’s arrest in Brooklyn, I’ll tell you the video is very disturbing to me — as PC, & as a dad. Also, #NYPD cops have a very tough job. We were called to a chaotic situation & we’re looking at all available video to determine why certain decisions were made.

The credible accounts available so far all suggest that if there was any chaos, then the private security guards created it, and the NYPD made it worse. Training in de-escalation – bringing a calming effect to an intense situation – began about four years ago, after an NY police officer killed Eric Garner with a stranglehold even though the underlying offense was selling single cigarettes on the street. Eric Garner, 43, was an unarmed black man and father of six when a gang of cops swarmed him. His last words were: “I can’t breathe.” Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a grand jury in 2014, but he still faces an internal police disciplinary charge of using excessive force. Pantaleo’s hearing started December 7, the same day NY cops used Jazmine Headley to demonstrate that de-escalation techniques have not yet taken hold, although there was no stranglehold and Headley survived.

Pantaleo is defended by his police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Union head Patrick Lynch responded to protesters that this trial is a “kangaroo court.” He accused the Civilian Complaint Review prosecuting Pantaleo of rushing the 2014 case. Lynch was also quick to absolve the police of any blame in tearing Jazmine Headley’s baby from her arms. Lynch said: “These police officers were put in an impossible situation. They didn’t create the dispute at the HRA office.” Yes, that’s true as far as it goes. But it ignores the reality that the police made the impossible situation into a disaster. Kind of reminds one of Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s exquisite malapropism during the 1968 police riots: “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”

Fifty years after the Chicago police riots, police violence remains an American plague. Police executions of innocent, unarmed, usually non-white victims continue to go unpunished. The same day Jazmine Headley became news, The New York Times published a study of excessive police violence in Phoenix. The piece starts with a cop roughing up and arresting a blind man who “came too close” to him in a men’s room. City officials did not dispute the statistics showing Phoenix police were more violent than police in other cities of similar size. Instead, the officials blamed Phoenix citizens, based on no statistics or other evidence. When the Phoenix police chief hired a non-profit research firm to study the violence issue, the Phoenix police union called that “second-guessing police officers who have done nothing wrong.”

That’s a police state mentality, the presumption that the police have done nothing wrong, without evidence or analysis. Patrick Lynch of the NY police union expressed the same poisonous attitude: “The event would have unfolded much differently if those at the scene had simply complied with the officers’ lawful orders.” The idea that we should obey the police whatever they say is raw authoritarianism (in plain view in Poland these days at the climate change conference there, where protest is contained and coal is promoted). In a free country, police need to be as accountable as the rest of us. And in the case of Jazmine Headley, accountability seems to have begun.

On December 11, the Brooklyn district attorney dropped all charges against her, saying:

I was horrified by the violence depicted in the video and immediately opened an investigation into this case…. An HRA officer escalated the situation as Ms Headley was about to leave the premises, creating an awful scenario of a baby being torn from his mother. The consequences this young and desperate mother has already suffered as a result of this arrest far outweigh any conduct that may have led to it. She and her baby have been traumatized, she was jailed on an unrelated warrant and may face additional collateral consequences.

The same day, Headley was released from Rikers Island prison after five days there. Ordering her release, Judge Craig S. Walker called her arrest a “horrific scene that was broadcast all over the United States.” While the viral video and subsequent outcry influenced the judge, Headley had only limited awareness of the media storm until she was released.

Headley was jailed because of a New Jersey warrant relating to credit card fraud charges for which she had missed at least one court appearance. The NY judge released her on her own recognizance, meaning that she did not have to post bail but was expected to appear at a New Jersey hearing next week. Brooklyn Defender Services, which has represented Headley, assured the judge that she would appear as required. The agency has also filed a motion in New Jersey asking for the dismissal of the charges there.

This represents partial justice of a sort for Jazmine Headley, but it’s hardly restorative or compensatory. Meanwhile, the police union’s Patrick Lynch continues to whine for police supremacy: “The immediate rush to condemn these officers leaves their fellow cops wondering – when confronted with a similar impossible scenario, what do you want us to do? The answer cannot be ‘do nothing.’”

What do we want police to do? Have they not been trained in de-escalation? Are they not capable of making sensible, proportionate decisions? How willing are they to live up to their mission of “treating every citizen with compassion, courtesy, professionalism, and respect…”?

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.