On Tuesday, Jazmine Headley, her family, and her advocates received some much-needed good news: the 23-year-old woman, who was arrested after NYPD officers attempted to rip her 1-year-old baby from her arms, was released from Rikers Island, and all charges against her have been dropped.
It was a small victory. But a statement issued by the NYPD’s police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), make clear that the larger issues contributing to Headley’s mistreatment and humiliation are stubbornly present—mainly because police representatives see nothing wrong with what they did.
In fact, much of the statement, issued by PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, shifts the blame for the officers’ violent actions onto everyone else—the Human Resources Administration, the crowd at the SNAP Center, and Jazmine Headley, herself.
Here’s the PBA’s statement, as shared by activist and organizer Joo-Hyun Kang:
These police officers were put in an impossible situation. They didn’t create the dispute at the HRA office—as always, they were called in to deal with the inevitable fallout when the rest of our City government fails in its task. Their objective was to enforce the law while protecting the safety of this mother, her child and every person in that office, some of whom were actively making a tense situation worse. The event would have unfolded much differently if those at the scene had simply complied with the officers’ lawful orders. The immediate rush to condemn these officers leaves their fellow cops wondering: when confronted with a similar scenario, what do you want us to do? The answer cannot be ‘do nothing.’
It’s hard to untangle this fiery mess of a statement, but let’s first establish what an “impossible situation” is: Hanging off a 3,000 foot cliff using just your pinkie fingers is an impossible situation. Eating Karen’s potato salad is an impossible situation. Being trapped in a room with your conspiracy theorist aunties while you’re waiting for your mom to finish using the restroom so you can collect your to-go plates and go home already is an impossible situation. Deciding not to arrest a woman committing no crime is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an impossible situation.
Deciding not to violently rip a 1-year-old baby from his mother’s arms because she won’t jump to obey your orders is not an impossible choice. Hell, it’s not even a terribly difficult one.
Which is what makes justifications like the PBA’s so offensive—and dangerous. The officers’ treatment of Headley has been condemned by many, from criminal justice advocates, to New York City councilmembers, to NYC public advocate and state Attorney General-elect Letitia James, all of whom recognize what happened to Headley was cruel, unnecessary, and indicative of how the government treats low-income people of color. When given the choice—and there is always a choice—to accept responsibility for their actions, or to acknowledge the pain and harm they caused Headley and her family, the union chose to (falsely) suggest there was no other choice available to their officers but violence.
“This is the essence of an authoritarian mindset that is incredibly dangerous,” Alex S. Vitale, a professor and author of The End of Policing, wrote on Twitter in response to the statement.
“Even if the police really had no choice but to make a forceful arrest, (which is not the case here), there are techniques that can be used to reduce the risk of injury to all involved,” he continued. “The real story is that from beginning to end this woman was treated in a degrading and demeaning way by a set of institutions (HRA, NYPD, DA, Corrections) who don’t really think her or her child’s life really matter.”
There’s no point in pretending that the union’s stance is unexpected—it is every bit as predictable as it is disappointing. But it is important to remember, even as Headley picks up the pieces (thankfully, it seems, with a fair amount of help), that the violence exacted upon her extends far beyond the actions of four police officers at a Brooklyn SNAP office. It is systemic. It is undergirded by a collective belief in the righteousness of state violence, a stubborn insistence that there simply is no other way.