Earlier this week, a day-care center in New York City informed a 23-year-old mother, Jazmine Headley, that there was a problem with her account. For whatever reason, the city had stopped paying the fee for her son. To sort things out, she went to a municipal office with her 1-year-old in tow, hoping to somehow get her child-care benefits restored.
“After sitting for some time on the floor, she got into an argument with a security guard who asked her to move,” The New York Times reported. “After that, somebody called the police.” The details are sketchy. But two NYPD officers responded to the scene. There were also multiple security officers working for the city’s Human Resources Administration. The officers tried to remove Headley by force, even as someone started recording video footage of the altercation. As it escalated, an officer forcefully removed her child from her arms.
The footage provoked widespread outrage on social media. “The officers pried the boy from Ms. Headley’s grip, and one officer waved a stun gun at an outraged crowd, some of whom were filming the arrest on their phones,” the Times reports. “Ms. Headley was charged with resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration and trespassing.” She was taken to Rikers Island, locked up, and held on an unrelated warrant in a case involving the alleged use of counterfeit credit cards in New Jersey.
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.”
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.
In his essay, Orwell describes being called one day to deal with a rampaging elephant. By the time he catches up with the beast, it has already done all the damage that it is likely to do and has calmed down. He is loath to shoot it, preferring to await the return of its minder once he realizes that it is safe to wait and that no harm will come of it.
Yet standing near the elephant with his gun as a crowd gathered around them, awaiting his next move, he felt another course foisted upon him:
They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
This does not map directly onto the Brooklyn municipal office. There are obvious differences—a human being rather than an animal is the subject of the call, an arrest rather than a shooting ends it—but there is one striking similarity: armed authority figures who will plausibly lose face if they do not decisively solve the problem put before them; who associate appearing impotent with a decline in the authority that they cannot easily disentangle from their day-to-day safety; and who therefore operate under incentives that can be perverse.
By way of contrast, consider the comedian Joe Rogan describing his approach to a gig that he had as a younger man, doing security at live events:
I was the reluctant security guard. I would always bring a hoodie with me, and if shit went down I would always cover up my security jacket and get the fuck out of Dodge. I brought a hoodie with me after my first couple of days on the job. The first day on the job, there was a dude named Alley Cat, he was the dude who ran the security, they caught some drunk kid who stole a golf cart, so they chased him down, tackled him, and he was beating him in the face with a walkie-talkie.
I was like, alrighty, it’s one of these jobs … And I’m a small person ... I was not getting in any tangles with big drunk dudes. For like $20 an hour, whatever I’m getting? So I would just bring a hoodie, and when shit went down I would zip up. And one day, shit went down! It was a Neil Young concert … These crazy Neil Young fans threw a bunch of shit on the ground and just started fires. And then they started trying to break up these fires and people were pushing security guards. My friend Larry, who is the nicest guy in the world, punched this guy in the stomach, and I’m like, Okay, that’s it, if Larry’s punching people (he’s the nicest), these people are drunk and crazy—I put the hoodie on and I’m out. I just walked straight to my car and drove the fuck home. I didn’t get my last paycheck, nothing.
Most NYPD officers don’t feel that approach is an option for them. And if most did, the aggregate results would not necessarily be beneficial, much as I see some NYPD videos and wish they would’ve just walked away.
In a city where I was once a beat reporter, there was a retired police officer who sat on the city council. And he would say that he was always cautious to vote to pass a new municipal ordinance, knowing that each one would carry the full force of the law—that if someone violated it repeatedly, or if they refused to pay a ticket after violating it once, they could be arrested, and if they resisted, they could be killed for it.
To pass a law, he said, is a very serious matter.
Even so, perhaps New York City really does need its laws against “obstructing governmental administration and trespassing.” But did its workers need to summon police officers in order to enforce that law in this case?
The conventional wisdom, upon watching videos like this one, is that the police need to be trained better in self-restraint or de-escalation tactics. That may be so—I certainly support training cops in de-escalation.
But cities would not need armed police officers if not for violent criminals. Maybe one of our great mistakes is calling cops to handle so many other matters. If the bureaucrats dealing with a young mother who refused to get up had been acculturated to call for a social worker rather than for police officers, would the result have been better?
If the public were acculturated to call mental-health workers rather than police officers when they encounter disturbed behavior, would fewer unarmed people die in shootings?
Even New York’s police commissioner, James O’Neill, seems to understand this point. He told a talk-radio station on Thursday that the city’s Human Resources Administration will reexamine the steps it should take on its own before calling 911. “They are taking a serious look on what they need to do,” O’Neill said. “We are going to make sure that if we are called to an HRA facility again, that an agency supervisor is there with us.”
Almost everyone agrees that a city needs police officers, given the chaos one can imagine in their absence. There is an attendant willingness to fund them. But there is less willingness to adequately fund other sorts of public servants. And so lots of tasks fall to cops for which they are simply not suited. Dial 911 and they’ll show up relatively quickly. Will anyone else?
The great power that officers wield makes it imperative to hold them accountable. But often as not, when things go wrong, it is our fault more than theirs—for putting them in positions where frequent failure is guaranteed.
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.
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