Jazmine Headley’s story shows how the justice system oppresses Black and low-income mothers

After video of officers trying to violently rip Jazmine Headley’s infant son out of her arms at a Human Resources Administration center in Brooklyn went viral this week, Headley was released Tuesday from Rikers Island, where she was held for five days on charges of resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and trespassing, and acting in a manner injurious to a child. All charges against her have been dropped.

Headley had been waiting in the public assistance office for hours, sitting on the floor due to the lack of available seating, before getting into an argument with a security guard about where she was sitting. The guard asked her to leave and she refused. Then someone called the police. The video uploaded to Facebook on Friday showed multiple officers and a sergeant pinning Headley down while trying to yank her son, Damone, away from her as she screamed “They’re hurting my son! They’re hurting my son!”

Headley was later charged with endangering her child, although she was at the benefits office to seek resources for her son, specifically a childcare voucher.

The outrageous and disturbing scene, was, according to social justice advocates, all-too-familiar for many poor and Black women, particularly low-income young Black mothers. In this case, and many others like it, police and office staff demonstrated a need for best practices for handling minor disputes, particularly one involving a child.

Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color described a scene like this one — police violence in a welfare office — as a “fairly frequent occurrence.”

“It’s partly because of how poverty is policed and people who are accessing government benefits and entitlements are policed and how Black women are policed in public spaces,” Ritchie told ThinkProgress.

“For a mother who was just in an office in a public space that she was entitled to be in, accessing benefits that she is entitled to, it is reflective of multiple trends that converge in the lives of Black women and Black mothers and policing of Black women in public spaces and the complete disrespect for their children,” she added.

The criminalization of poverty was clearly at work in the Brooklyn HRA office, said Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing and professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. Vitale said public institutions are also increasingly being turned into a jail-like experience, including welfare offices, emergency rooms, and public schools.

In Headley’s case, there were two levels of security at the HRA office, involving both unarmed security guards and Human Resource Association police, who have arrest powers. Vitale concluded that what happened to Headley is also owed to a political and cultural dehumanization of the poor in a society that does not wish to interrogate how poverty develops.

“People are being treated in a degrading and defeating way even though the purpose of that institution is to help people,” Vitale told ThinkProgress. “Part of this is driven by a policy that wants to frame the problems of poor people as one of individual moral failure rather than failures of the market. So when we treat poor people as problems of moral failure, punitive and coercive approaches toward them are legitimated.”

“When we treat poor people as problems of moral failure, punitive and coercive approaches toward them are legitimated.”

Human Resources Administration commissioner Steve Banks said Tuesday of the incident, “I think the situation for this young mother could have been de-escalated. There could have been interventions that didn’t allow it to get to this point.”

According to CBS New York, HRA is currently working on a plan to ensure that a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future and that wait times are reduced. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, “We will put in place specific changes to make sure this does not happen again.”

Police called the arrest of Headley “troubling” and both the NYPD and HRA are reviewing the matter. The two HRA officers involved have been put on modified duty, according to the New York Post.

The city has, in the past, boasted of its new de-escalation training and acknowledgement of implicit bias. These efforts were put in place after the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold in 2014. Mayor de Blasio promised in 2014 that “the training that’s going to happen here in this building will change the future of this city.”

“I understand anyone who is doubtful about change — anyone who is cynical about our democratic process. But I’d also say history teaches us that many times change is real,” he added.

But there is continued skepticism of the NYPD’s interest in de-escalation. In 2016, New York City Councilman Rory Lancman said, and the NYPD denied, that the NYPD is carving out space to use the chokehold despite claiming that it has been banned. Lancman referred to revised guidelines for officers, which list certain techniques police can’t use. While the chokehold is one of them, Lancman said the guidelines allow for the Use of Force Review Board to determine whether a cop’s actions are “reasonable and justified.” Those cases include ones where a suspect is resisting arrest, the suspect is bigger and stronger than an officer, or there is immediacy of a threat, the New York Daily News reported.

After sustained public attention on Headley’s arrest, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez dropped the charges against her and she was released from prison and reunited with her son late Tuesday night. But she still spent five days in Rikers, while her son stayed with a relative. Headley’s mother, Jacquelin Jenkins, told CBS2 on Wednesday that the family is considering a lawsuit against the city.

“It’s partly because of how poverty is policed and people who are accessing government benefits … are policed and how Black women are policed in public spaces.”

Headley’s arrest and detainment at Rikers is also indicative of a national trend. The number of women in U.S. jails has increased 14-fold since 1970. To compare, there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of people in U.S. jails overall.

“Most are there, like Jazmine, on minor offenses, public order offenses, offenses that have to do with someone deciding a Black woman’s presence in a public space is to be criminalized and a lot of people are there for their inability to pay bonds — most of them minor,” Ritchie explained.

For some, this phenomenon ends in death, like the 2015 case of Sandra Bland, who died in jail cell after she was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for an improper lane change and then arrested for assault after a confrontation. She remained in jail when she couldn’t raise the $500 for bail.

“There are mothers of minor children who may lose custody of those kids just by virtue of being locked up on minor offenses like these ones,” Ritchie said. “These parents of minor children are often their sole caretakers and so the children when they’re locked up are placed in state custody and that’s traumatic for everyone involved.”

The situation also demonstrates a need for police, security guards, and staff at government offices to recognize how escalation of a dispute, such as this one, affects children. When police show up to take away a parent, children can experience serious emotional distress, sometimes for a lifetime.

According to 2012 report by the University of Minnesota on the impact of trauma on infants, Damone isn’t too young to be affected by what happened at the HRA office. Researchers said that some children have a visual memory about a traumatic event and that infants as young as only three months old “have demonstrated traumatic stress responses following direct exposure to trauma.” Research demonstrates that children exposed to traumatic events have higher rates of anxiety and depression.

2010 Michigan study found that 60 percent of police departments did not have a policy for what to do with minor children after the arrest of a parent or guardian and a majority of officers said that there weren’t procedures in place to check on a nominated caregiver. It also found that, most of the time, departments don’t even ask those they’re arresting if a child may be left unattended as a result.

Ritchie also conducted research in 2015 that found that only one of the 36 large police departments surveyed, San Francisco, had a policy that considered the treatment of children whose parents were arrested. She said the results of arrests, considering this lack of policy, were “wildly inconsistent.”

“It often results in child neglect on the part of the officers because there’s no policy and no guidance,” Ritchie said. “When it comes to black children and children of color, they tend to go to child protective services rather than a neighbor or relative. God forbid you don’t arrest the mom or the caregiver and find another way to resolve the situation.”

“This kind of incident is just reflective of how one encounter with a police officer can literally change your entire life,” she added. “Those encounters are more likely when you’re in public spaces, when you’re accessing public services, when you’re a Black woman and when you’re a mom. All those things converged in this incident and now her and her child’s life are forever and irrevocably changed.”

Read more: thinkprogress.org