Read: After the police brutality video goes viral
She has since been released, and charges from the New York City incident were 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,” Brooklyn’s district attorney said in a statement. “She and her baby have been traumatized, she was jailed on an unrelated warrant and may face additional collateral consequences.”
For those keeping track, people in the municipal office with the woman, many thousands of people who saw the video online, and city officials commenting on it all agree that something went terribly wrong. That’s never a good sign for the police officers in a given situation.
But what exactly went wrong? One question is whether Headley could’ve been left alone, sitting on the floor, without doing any harm, or whether she was disrupting the municipal office in a way that warranted attempts to forcibly remove her.
Let’s stipulate that people who can be left alone often should be left alone, remember that might apply here, and interrogate the other possibility. If it wasn’t tenable to let her sit on the floor of the municipal office as long as she liked, a plausible scenario, then what went wrong?
Earlier this month, I wrote about sadism in the St. Louis police department—about cops texting one another prior to a protest against a police killing about how eager they were to brutalize protesting citizens amid the relative anonymity afforded by darkness and chaotic streets.
Intensive oversight of police work is essential in part because the profession attracts some of the worst people along with some of the best. Yet the reason many were upset by the outcome in that Brooklyn municipal office was not that the cops involved seemed sadistic or malign. They show no sign of animus, no impulse to sneak a needless punch. Nor do they seem to be fearing for their lives or physical safety—another factor that causes police officers to err in their on-duty judgments.
What I see are NYPD officers who were put in a position that partly resembles what George Orwell once described in his essay about his time as a colonial police officer in Burma. “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible,” he wrote. “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”
Read: “We, too, are targets of police violence”
Many NYPD cops would feel sympathetic to a woman with a baby in her arms who was struggling to make her way in a society where she is not thriving. But if harried municipal workers cannot persuade a woman with a baby in her arms to get up off the floor where she was blocking people, and call the officers away from other pressing matters to deal with the situation, those same cops might feel that it was now on them to solve the problem.