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Feature 06.21.2021 6 minutes

New Crime City

Beck & Stone The-Last-Days-of-New-York_2

Progressive posturing in NYC creates a standard of savage permission.

Editors’ Note

The following is an excerpt from Seth Barron’s new book, The Last Days of New York.

The demonization of the police in New York City and the criminalization of normal police behavior accelerated under Mayor de Blasio. Social media and cell phones have certainly amplified the tendency. Arresting a resisting subject is never pretty: it can involve multiple officers pulling someone to the ground, manipulation of limbs and joints in directions counter to natural movement, “compliance strikes,” and the use of batons or pepper sprays and even tasers or dogs. Such images can provoke reactions of disgust and rage and a sense that the police are essentially armed bullies, or just another gang of thugs.

Brutality does happen, of course—though the introduction of body cams demonstrates it much less than was anticipated by anti-cop activists and the plaintiffs’ bar—and deserves condemnation when it’s real. But the cause of public safety and trusted law enforcement is not served when elected officials jump on every WorldStarHipHop video and join the chorus of denunciation without getting all the facts or even caring to find out what they really are.

On December 7, 2018, a Brooklyn woman named Jazmine Headley went to the Human Resources Administration social services office to find out why she had stopped receiving vouchers for childcare for her one-year-old son. After waiting for three hours, unable to find a seat, she sat on the floor. As in most buildings open to the public and subject to fire and building codes, sitting on the floor was not allowed. Security officers—not NYPD officers, but NYC Human Resources Police Department “special officers”—asked Headley to get up. She quarreled with the officer and refused. She was told to leave the building and refused again.

Pretty soon, the scene devolved into a grotesquerie. The HRA officers called the NYPD. Cell phone video shows Jazmine Headley lying face down on the floor clutching her baby, who is screaming. As many as five uniformed officers from various offices stood over her, plucking at her while dozens of clients waiting for social services—none of whom, apparently, bothered to offer Headley their seat—surround them shrieking. Eventually, some of the cops grab the baby, and others try to manhandle Jazmine Headley in position to be handcuffed. Headley shouts, “My baby! You’re hurting my baby!” In the ensuing fray, one of the officers was bitten and another was kicked hard enough to leave a big bruise. Headley wound up spending several days in jail.

In an ideal world, none of this would have happened. Ideally, no one would lose her voucher for an unexplained reason. The welfare office would have plenty of extra seats. Jazmine Headley would have been less obstreperous. The officers would have been a little more tolerant. The crowd of people bored silly sitting in a waiting room wouldn’t have hyped up the confrontation into a hysterical frenzy. And politicians wouldn’t have used this incident as an excuse to insert themselves in front of cameras and posture to demonstrate their righteous fury at the brutality of low-paid HRA peace officers.

But that’s not the world we live in. The video of Jazmine Headley’s arrest went viral, and the outrage machine started to whirr. The tableau 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…. [T]hose officers being fired is the least of what should happen here.”

Regarding the charge of racism, it is probably worth noting that Jazmine Headley is a black woman—as were all the NYPD and HRA police and peace officers trying to arrest her. In fact, based on the available video, virtually everyone in the social services office—guards, clients, staff—was black. But being black, apparently, does not inoculate one from the demon of white supremacy. As Cumbo explained, the underlying racism of the officers led them to make a

calculated decision that attacking this woman with her child was going to yield no repercussions…. [T]hat’s why it’s important to send a message that black women count, and when you attack black women…there will be repercussions.

Two months after the incident, which eventually resulted in the firing or resignation of 22 security guards, the city council held an oversight hearing to investigate the event. It was an orgy of tears and apologies. Corey Johnson, speaker of the city council, expressed deep contrition.

I also want to apologize, I want to say I’m sorry, I’m sorry on behalf of the city of New York, I’m sorry you ever had to go to that HRA Center, I’m sorry that you and your baby had to experience that trauma, I’m sorry that you were wrongfully kept on Rikers Island for multiple days away from your family, you deserve so much more than you received and I am deeply, deeply apologetic that you had to have this experience.

Laurie Cumbo, taking a second and third bite at the apple, read aloud from Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” She then wept and invited Headley to visit the Sesame Place theme park with her and her own son. “Thank you,” the councilwoman said.

Helen Rosenthal, a councilmember from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, observed that all the HRA workers, not just the security guards, deserved blame.

The first failure is with the HRA workers…. [T]he 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.

Rosenthal also demanded to know why “survivor-centric and trauma-based” policing was not offered when the officers showed up to find Jazmine Headley refusing to get off the floor.

Mayor de Blasio chimed in, too, with predictably fulsome concern. “I want to just say as a parent, my heart goes out Ms. Headley and to her son,” he commiserated. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have that happen. It’s just deeply, deeply troubling and no mother should go through that and no child should go through it.”

He also made a gesture of magnanimity, restoring Headley’s child-care voucher by decree. “Whatever benefits are due to her, we’ll make sure they’re granted immediately,” Mayor de Blasio announced loftily, bestowing his largesse like a wise king in a fairy tale. A year later, the city settled a lawsuit brought by Jazmine Headley; to compensate her for her troubles, she was awarded $625,000.

But amidst all this apologizing, second-guessing, and hastening to make amends, no one asked if it is actually okay just to sit on the floor of a government office and refuse to get up. There was no medical emergency that caused Headley to sit on the ground; she wasn’t in distress or feeble. Helen Rosenthal’s insistence that HRA clerks ought to have rushed to Headley’s aid and put their arm around her smacks of the highest degree of condescension, both to Headley and to the hypothetical worker. This wasn’t a refugee camp for the recently cluster-bombed—it was a municipal welfare office where dealing with bored, footsore, and querulous clients all day long is standard fare and where the people seeking public assistance have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

And as with the Eric Garner case, nobody looks at it from the point of view of a security officer whose job—whose sworn duty, in fact—is to maintain order. There are reasons why public buildings post “maximum occupancy” signs, have multiple points of egress and clearly-lighted exit signs, and in the event of an emergency, the halls have to be clear. Should sitting on the floor be allowed, and if so, how about lying on the floor? The officials and members of the press who are horrified that the clerks and guards weren’t more sympathetic to Headley betray their own disdain for her. They think it is absurd to expect people waiting in a government office for public assistance to have patience or behave in a civilized manner because they have nothing but contempt for the poor, whom they secretly deplore. Their underlying attitude is no different from a snob who would watch a video of the Headley episode and smirk, “Well, what would you expect?”

This becomes obvious when you look at the even lower regard in which the security guards were held. HRA police, while technically peace officers, are low-status. Their job has no glamour, no respect, and low pay; it is staffed largely by black women—much like the population they are supposed to be monitoring. Their job is thankless, and no thanks is exactly what they got when they told Jazmine Headley to get up and she told them to leave her alone.

New York City’s elite, from Mayor de Blasio on down, demand safe streets and safe spaces for the people of New York. But by refusing to stand up for law enforcement officers when they try to do their jobs, our public officials impart an inconsistent message to law enforcement, who develop a version of learned helplessness. Not knowing which uses of force are going to wind up in a viral video, get them fired, or make them the object of a scolding lecture from a posturing city council member has a demoralizing effect and induces a hesitancy to engage with the public, even when action is called for. This makes New York less safe.

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