A new lawsuit filed by Jazmine Headley, the young mother whose infant was ripped from her arms at a Brooklyn benefits office last year, alleges that the city has continued to turn a "blind eye" to routine violence committed by cops and security guards at the city’s public assistance sites.
Filed in federal court on Wednesday, the complaint draws from Headley's own disturbing experience, which she calls "a formative incident of trauma" for her 1-year-old son.
Last December, Headley was waiting to renew her childcare benefits at a Boerum Hill assistance center, when she was confronted by Human Resources Administration security guards, known as "peace officers," after taking a seat on the floor. In viral footage of the encounter, the 23-year-old mother can be seen laying on the ground, surrounded by screaming HRA officers and two uniformed cops, one of whom attempts to violently wrench the child from Headley's arms. The officer then pulls out his stun gun, waving it at the gathered crowd and distressed mother.
The incident was widely condemned by local officials, and resulted in suspensions for the security guards (the NYPD elected not to discipline the officers involved). According to Headley, the brutal encounter was part of a larger pattern of abuse that New Yorkers often encounter while attempting to navigate the city's social services department.
The suit goes on to detail more than a dozen instances of known staff abuse at HRA facilities, including one "peace officer" who was sued for allegedly choking a Medicaid applicant, and then, in a separate incident, beating a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry.
A lack of interest from the city in properly training HRA officers, the lawsuit alleges, has created "a culture of fear and obstruction that actively impedes HRA clients from seeking assistance with benefits to which they are entitled." The suit also accuses HRA employees of being too quick to involve NYPD officers, who have not been trained in child-sensitive arrests and frequently separate young kids from their parents without justification.
In Headley's case, she spent multiple nights on Rikers Island because of a prior warrant. Her son was initially "taken by strangers to a police precinct, and released to spend the night without his mother for the first time in his life," per the suit.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office said that the city had begun retraining officers in de-escalation techniques, and directing them not to request police intervention before seeking a superior, among other reforms.
“While we cannot comment on pending litigation, last year’s incident involving Ms. Headley painfully illustrated that more has to be done to improve the client experience in our centers," the spokesperson said.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages. In a statement, Headley said her family planned on "re-directing the hurt and anger we feel into more positive outlets for change," such as coordinating response teams to help other abuse victims and volunteering with the Brooklyn Defender Services.
"Jazmine, like so many of the other people we serve, was mistreated by the very City agencies that were and are supposed to be helping her and her family," said Lisa Schreibersdorf, the Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, in a statement. "We applaud Jazmine for holding the City accountable for the violent, abusive, and uncalled for treatment that she suffered as she was trying to protect and care for her son."
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.