Manhattan Institute

What Should They Have Done?

New York police are condemned for “attacking” a woman who sat on the floor of a waiting room.

A woman was arrested at a Human Resources Administration office in Brooklyn last week for sitting on the floor with her baby because all the seats were taken. Jazmine Headley apparently quarreled with a security guard who told her to get up, then refused to stand when police were called in.

The encounter took an ugly turn when the police tried to arrest her. Gripping her son, Headley resisted the officers’ efforts to take him away from her so that she could be handcuffed; videos from different angles that circulated on social media show a screaming woman in a tug-of-war with multiple officers, as a raucous crowd surrounds them, shouting.

The story of a poor, black single mother having her child ripped from her arms by armed police in a welfare office is overripe with significance for people invested in the narrative of the “criminalization of poverty,” as City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo put it. Cumbo decried the “clear racism” of the incident, which “puts a permanent stain on the police department . . . those officers being fired is the least of what should happen here.” Cumbo, along with Councilmember Steven Levin, who chairs the Human Resources Committee and represents the district where the incident occurred, described the confrontation as one where police “attacked” Headley.

Headley’s blackness was emphasized by the councilmembers, especially Cumbo, who criticized Mayor de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray for not stepping forward “as a black woman with a black child” to condemn the police. Acknowledging that all the police officers involved in the arrest were in fact black, and most were women, Cumbo nevertheless indicted the presumed underlying racism of the officers, who “made a calculated decision that attacking this woman with her child was going to yield no repercussions . . . that’s why it’s important to send a message that black women count, and when you attack black women . . . there will be repercussions.”

Amid the controversy and calls for the dismissal of all the officers and HRA officials involved, no one has asked if it is okay to sit on the floor of a crowded government agency waiting area and ignore repeated requests to get up. By all accounts, Headley was sitting quietly, showing no signs of distress, and was not experiencing a traumatic breakdown or otherwise showing signs of being ill, so an ambulance was not indicated. It is indisputable that standing around with a baby in a welfare office is an unpleasant thing to do, and probably the staff should have brought her a chair, since no one else appears to have offered her a seat. But it appears that, given the circumstances, Headley was stubbornly refusing to move.

Video of the incident shows police asking her to get up and attempting to reason with her. Headley lies on the floor covering her baby, who is screaming well before the police touch him or his mother. Critics of the police, including council Speaker Corey Johnson, Attorney General-elect Leticia James, and HRA commissioner Steven Banks, don’t offer any suggestions for what police should do when someone truculently decides to ignore a lawful order. Police are in the enforcement business, not adjudication; “tell it to the judge” is a timeworn phrase, for good reason.

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, along with Levin, blamed the incident on a lack of resources. “The first failure is with the HRA workers . . . the minute someone saw her on the floor someone should have sat down next to her and said, ‘Wow. This must be a really rotten situation for you. This is awful. How are you?’ And how that could not be the first response of an employee is beyond me.” Suggesting that the HRA staff are “overstressed and overworked,” Rosenthal demanded to know why “survivor-centric and trauma-based” policing was not applied when the officers were summoned to deal with Headley’s refusal to get up.

We can blame lack of resources, inadequate training, internalized white supremacist racism by black people against other black people, or the poor layout of the seating area at the welfare office for the arrest of Jazmine Headley. But the fact remains that we rely on the police to keep order, and they have the often-unenviable job of ensuring that crowded passageways remain unobstructed. They shouldn’t be labeled as brutal because someone doesn’t want to cooperate.

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