The waiting game: NYPD ripped 1-year-old from mother, but why did the benefits office expect her to wait for hours, standing up, with a child?
There is no shortage of things to ask about the treatment that 23-year-old Jazmine Headley received at a social services office in Brooklyn last week. Headley was with her 1-year-old son, waiting for childcare vouchers for over four hours in the crowded room, and because there were no available chairs, she sat in a corner with her child in her lap. A security guard told her to stand, Headley refused, the security guard called police, and when the NYPD arrived, they forcibly wrenched the boy out of Headley’s arms. When onlookers objected, an officer pointed a Taser at them and at Headley. They then arrested Headley and charged her with resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration, and trespassing. She was held at Rikers Island. An order of protection kept her from having contact with her son. But a video of the incident went viral, prompting widespread outrage, and, in response to that outrage, the judge ordered her released (calling the incident a “horrific scene that was broadcast all over the United States”) and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office dropped the charges. [Ewan Palmer / Newsweek]
One could ask, for example, what makes an officer so insensitive to ignore the anguished screams of a mother and, in the face of no danger at all, rip her child away and threaten both with a Taser. (The answer might lie in the police’s obsession with “complete submission” at the expense of safety, a topic we explored last week.) One could ask who the officers thought they were protecting when they pried a baby from his mother, who had done nothing wrong, an act that necessitated two visits to the hospital. (The baby is expected to make a complete recovery.) One could ask if Headley should have been charged with acting in a manner injurious to a child, or why the officers weren’t charged since they actually injured the child. One could ask why the NYC Human Resources Administration “peace officers” called the NYPD instead of, perhaps, getting Headley and her child a chair, or, in the alternative, doing nothing because she wasn’t bothering anyone? (The peace officers have been put on administrative leave.)
Patrick Lynch, president of the largest NYPD union, said his officers were simply enforcing the law, though it was unclear which law she had broken. “The event would have unfolded much differently if those at the scene had simply complied with the officers’ lawful orders,” he said, apparently regardless of how nonsensical those orders were. “The immediate rush to condemn these officers leaves their fellow cops wondering: When confronted with a similar impossible scenario, what do you want us to do? The answer cannot be ‘do nothing.’” This prompts the question: Why not?
One could ask if Headley would still be sitting on Rikers Island, with a protective order keeping her from her child, if a bystander had not recorded video. And how many times has this happened when no one was recording?
But one little-noticed aspect of the story is the sheer wait that Headley was expected to endure, and how she was expected to comport herself and control her child during that wait. In courtrooms, jails, and benefits offices around the country, low-income people are told to wait. For hours. They are not told to return in an hour, or that someone will call them when it’s their turn, or to take a seat, have a cup of water, and read a book. In criminal court, defendants and their families are often forced to wait for hours. They must do so silently, and are not allowed to read a newspaper, let alone check their phone. There is simply no regard for their time. In this writer’s experience as a public defender in New York, defendants show a tremendous amount of patience during the long waits in court, more patience than this writer has ever had. One judge would penalize any client who arrived late––for any reason––by forcing him or her to return the next day and sit silently for hours until the case was called last, at 5 p.m. If that would cause the person to miss work, or a doctor’s appointment, or a parent-teacher conference, the judge would say, “I don’t care. You can be here, or you can be in jail.”
In criminal courts, “a defendant must show up—braving long lines at security, only to fritter away hours waiting in courtrooms, just to appear for a ‘calendar call’ that usually lasts 90 seconds or less and almost always results in further adjournment,” writes former public defender David Feige. He notes that these long waits, repeated over months and years, can be disastrous and cause people to plead guilty simply to end the court dates. Feige has proposed that criminal defendants be treated more like civil litigants, whose lawyers file lawsuits and litigate them on their behalf. They need not appear until it is time to be deposed or go to trial. [David Feige / New York Times] As Malcolm Feeley noted in his seminal 1979 study, when it comes to lower criminal courts, the process itself is the punishment.
One attorney told the Daily Appeal that in a Dallas courtroom recently, a woman’s cell phone rang, and she immediately left the courtroom. Unsatisfied that the disturbance was gone, the judge ordered a bailiff to chase the woman outside, which he did. He snatched the phone from her hands, returned, and handed it to the judge. In Washington, D.C., one attorney tells the Daily Appeal that “marshals and security are basically on self-appointed phone patrol” and also throw people out if their children make any noise. In New Orleans, according to one former public defender, “judges loved to arrive hours late and then throw tantrums and issue warrants if clients had the nerve to step out to use the bathroom or their phones.” Another attorney says a D.C. woman was crying while waiting for her case to be called, and “the judge yelled at her and ultimately made her go into the hallway and wait.” One public defender who used to practice in New York reminds us that although people coming to court from the outside are treated badly, those who are brought to court from Rikers wait in court holding cells, where they often go long periods, sometimes all day, without anything to eat or drink. As another New York-based defense attorney noted on social media, about Jazmine Headley’s ordeal: “Nobody chooses to bring their infant to a crowded waiting room to sit on the floor and then be harassed by security so they can get a daycare voucher so they can go clean floors.”
I, like many, complain about trips to the DMV, but the last time I went, I settled into a padded chair, took out my laptop, and used the wifi to get work done. In the end, I waited only half an hour––which, in New York, is about average.