Why didn't they just get her a chair? Where the NYPD officers went wrong...
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
The situation was familiar, if not banal: With her 1-year old son in her arms, Jazmine Headley entered a social services office in Brooklyn, hoping to renew her SNAP benefits. Apparently finding no empty chairs, Ms. Headley took a seat on the floor. A security guard told her to move; she refused. An argument ensued, and someone in the office called the police. Four NYPD officers showed up, struggled violently with Ms. Headley to separate her from her son, and then arrested her (she has since been released with all charges dropped). What isn’t banal is the question I’m left with as a scholar who’s researched and written about the police for the past twenty years: Why didn’t the officers just get her a chair?
Instead, the NYPD officers forced a coercive response and seemed to forget that the primary role of the police isn't to enforce the law -- it's to protect life. Yes, sometimes protecting life means putting people into handcuffs; sometimes it means arresting them; sometimes it means using force, or even deadly force. But protecting life always means approaching people with dignity and as if they matter. It means trying to put themselves into other people’s life circumstance while also trying to achieve compliance. In this case Ms. Headley didn't appear to be armed. She wasn't swinging a tire iron at officers or at bystanders. And she wasn't on her feet charging or kicking anyone. She was lying on the floor, clutching her son. So, why the rush to pull her from her child and make an arrest?
We can imagine a possible narrative of the 911 call into the NYPD communications center: A woman with her baby screaming at people in the social service center; she might be high; she’s yelling at everyone and seems dangerous. Automatically, the responding officers are thinking they are walking into a potentially violent encounter and maybe a child endangerment situation. Fair enough. When they arrived at the scene, they were likely in “threat” mode; and they appeared to remain in threat mode throughout the incident. And that’s the problem: they seem never to have taken the time to redefine the situation as something other than a violent encounter.
Many policing professionals will argue that they have to approach every situation as if it were life threatening, that they never know what they are walking into, and that no two potential use-of-force events are the same. For the most part, however, these assertions simply aren’t true. Many, if not most, incidents unfold in real time rather than in split second intervals, giving officers the opportunity to adjust their tactics as they acquire new information. What is true of most policing encounters is that they take place in relative isolation from administrative oversight, leading officers to function as “streetcorner politicians," who have to make decisions that affect peoples’ lives in very real ways. As such, they should be trained, socialized, and disciplined by police organizations that also value the protection of life over simple law enforcement.
Police perform a difficult job under sometimes-impossible circumstances. But during events like the one with Ms. Headley, police officers don't do themselves, their colleagues, or the public any favors when they enter most situations with the singular mindset that they're a hammer and everything else is a nail. And while it’s true that the general right to use coercive force is a defining characteristic of the police institution, coercion does not have to define every encounter between the police and the public. The fact is, the four NYPD officers who showed up to the social services office failed to properly scan and analyze the situation, which led them to deploy a highly aggressive use of force response. And on assessment, they've earned a lot of community outrage -- much of which could have been avoided if they'd simply gotten Ms. Headley a chair, slowed down the event, and engaged her in conversation.
Policing can only move forward as a profession if departments embrace the fact that the police Mission isn't simply to show up with baton (or Taser) in hand. If officers approach every situation with the philosophical belief that their primary job is to protect life, then they will achieve better outcomes. They will arrest fewer people; they will shoot fewer people; and they will tear fewer infants from the arms of their terrified mothers. And along the way, policing will become part of a community's solution to social problems rather than a perpetuator of them.
Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: A 'New' Idea for a 21st Century Mandate (Wolters Kluwer), is due out in early 2022. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane