A disturbing video of police officers ripping a 1-year-old child from his mother’s arms moments before her arrest has sparked renewed criticism of the New York Police Department’s use of force practices.
On December 7, Jazmine Headley visited a Human Resources Administration center in Brooklyn in the hopes of getting a child care voucher for her 1-year-old son, Damone. After spending several hours in the office, there were no seats available, so she sat on the floor with her son in her arms.
Security officers at the center asked Headley to stand or leave the building, and when she said she would not, they called the police. Police also requested that Headley leave, and then decided to take a different route.
A video recording of the Friday incident shows three officers surrounding Headley, forcefully attempting to pull her son from her arms as she cradles him on the ground. “They’re hurting my son! They’re hurting my son!” Headley yells. Onlookers in the center can be heard telling officers to stop, but the officers continue to pull at Headley and her child. At one point, an officer pulls out a stun gun and waves it at the crowd.
A Brooklyn woman applying for food stamps sat on the floor as no chairs were available. The NYPD came and forcibly pulled her ONE-YEAR-OLD son out of her arms. She faces multiple charges and is being held without bail on Rikers.pic.twitter.com/vdTOpKsWWT— Mark Elliott (@markmobility) December 10, 2018
“I was just so disgusted,” Nyashia Ferguson, the person who recorded the video, told CBS New York. “I couldn’t believe they were doing that to that child. I just couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.”
Headley was arrested during the incident, and the video has fueled a new wave of criticism of the NYPD, which has found itself at the center of several high-profile use of force incidents against black and brown New Yorkers in recent years.
It’s also led some local officials and policing experts to question just how committed the NYPD is to its effort to train officers in de-escalation and implicit bias, an initiative first announced in 2014.
“We were told after the death of Eric Garner that NYPD would receive ‘deescalation training,’” Alex Vitale, a sociology professor and coordinator for Brooklyn College’s Policing and Social Justice Project, tweeted on Sunday. “It obviously didn’t work.”
Video of police separating Headley from her son immediately drew national attention
Headley was charged with resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration, and trespassing. From Friday afternoon to Tuesday, she was held at Rikers Island without bail, an action the police department attributed to an unrelated outstanding arrest warrant for Headley in New Jersey.
On Tuesday, after the video went viral, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that all charges against her would be dropped.
“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,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Continuing to pursue this case will not serve any purpose,” he added. Hours later, attorneys representing Headley announced that she would also be released from jail.
Headley still faces charges for credit card fraud stemming from the New Jersey warrant and is expected to appear in court on Wednesday for that matter, the New York Times reports. Attorneys representing Headley have called for those charges to also be dropped.
Video of Headley’s arrest immediately sparked discussions about the criminalization of poverty, particularly as it affects poor black women shamed for needing government aid. “Being poor is not a crime. The actions of the NYPD in this video are appalling and contemptible,” New York City public advocate and state Attorney General-elect Letitia James said in a statement on Sunday.
“No mother should have to experience the trauma and humiliation we all witnessed in this video,” she added.
The arrest has also sparked concern among other local political figures. On December 9, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted that Headley’s violent arrest was “unacceptable, appalling and heart breaking.”
“The level of trauma inflicted here on this young mother and child is deeply upsetting, disturbing and unacceptable,” he added.
The NYPD has said that the incident was “troubling” and added that it would conduct an ”examination of all available video of the incident.” The Human Resource Administration officers involved in the arrest have not been named, and have been placed on leave, and will work on modified duty when they return according to agency commissioner Steve Banks.
But these statements have done little to quell criticism of the NYPD or of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Monday, de Blasio tweeted about the arrest, calling it a disturbing incident. “I have a lot of questions about how this was handled,” he wrote. “NYPD & HRA will get to the bottom of what happened.”
In a Tuesday morning tweet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand argued that the situation required “a full investigation” and called the video “outrageous and horrific.” And according to Buzzfeed, there have been at least two protests in the city criticizing Headley’s treatment by police.
The NYPD has touted its new de-escalation training. Now critics are questioning if it really works.
Headley’s violent arrest comes after years of Mayor de Blasio and police department officials praising the NYPD’s increased emphasis on de-escalation and fighting implicit bias.
These changes began in 2014, after the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in a department-prohibited chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in December 2014, prompting de Blasio to announce a massive officer retraining program that was slated to begin in 2015.
“I think you’re going to see a very different reality after this training has been achieved,” de Blasio said at the time. “This will protect our officers, it will protect live citizens. I have no doubt some tragedy will be avoided because of this training.”
The training, which included three days of discussions and lectures on topics like cultural sensitivity and use of force, was poorly received by some officers, who gave the program negative ratings in early 2015. Policing experts noted that the training was unlikely to accomplish its goals, arguing that a few hours of training over three days was not enough to change the policing culture in New York.
Later in 2015, a report from New York’s Department of Investigation unpacked just how deeply the problems were embedded, noting that the city’s police academy also offered insufficient training on de-escalation.
“In the Police Academy’s nearly 500 hours of coursework, OIG-NYPD identified only one nine hour course (entitled “Use of Force”) that directly pertains to an officer’s use of force,” the city commissioner noted. “Just one 4.5-hour course (entitled “Policing Professionally”) addresses de-escalation tactics — less than one percent of the total curriculum.”
These issues have received new attention since Headley’s arrest, and have led critics to note de Blasio’s extended silence on the matter prior to his Monday tweets. “Mr. de Blasio’s handling of the incident shows how far he has strayed from his righteous roots as a candidate promising to hold the police accountable and change the way they interact with minority residents like Ms. Headley, who is black,” the New York Times editorial board argued on Monday.
High profile events like Headley’s arrest come at a difficult moment for the police department, which has struggled to gain trust in communities of color even while the city promotes changes like efforts to reduce marijuana arrests and the end to controversial practices like stop-and-frisk.
These efforts have been further complicated by other incidents of police use of force, including an alleged use of a prohibited chokehold by an officer in 2017, and a recorded incident that same year where an officer threatened to Tase a group of teenagers.
As Brooklyn College’s Vitale explained to the Times, these events only make it harder for communities of color to interact with police. “This just reinforces their sense that police are a source of violence and injustice,” he said.