Jazmine Headley Becomes Catalyst for HRA Improvements

City hall hearing scene
Jazmine Headley sitting with a case worker. Photo by Naeisha Rose.

Jazmine Headley, a public assistance recipient who became a viral sensation last December after an altercation with police, was at City Hall Monday testifying about her experience with the city’s Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Service, which is led by its by its Commissioner Steve Banks.

On Dec. 7, 2018, she went to a Brooklyn HRA facility while holding her toddler to learn about why her son’s daycare voucher was abruptly canceled, but once there she saw no seats; thus, she sat on the floor while she waited. Peace officers took issue with that and called the police on her, and four members of the NYPD came and tried to grab her baby from her arms as she tried to leave.

“I am sorry that you were kept on Rikers Island for multiple days away from your family,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea, Hell’s kitchen) at the meeting. “I am deeply grateful for your bravery – for your wanting to be here today.”

Johnson acknowledged the “pain” of Headley and saw the incident as a major catalyst for change for the HRA/DSA.

“I am a new mom, a single mother and I needed childcare so that I could build on our future,” said Headley. “I want to go back to school and I also want to give my son the best life possible.”

Headley had taken the entire day off from her cleaning job to go to Brooklyn, but after waiting from morning into the afternoon she got tired after getting no feedback.

“I sat on the floor…I was just going to wait it out,” said the emotional Headley. “A simple desire to rest ended up with me getting arrested. During the process my son was violently removed from me…Unless you are a parent you will never know, or relate to the pain I felt that day,” she cried.

Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) offered words of comfort and understanding to Headley.

“You have unwillingly become a spokeswoman for women, particularly black women all across the city of New York,” Cumbo said. “I know that as a single black woman, a mother in New York City – you have to carry yourself at all times with the ‘don’t even think about messing with me…strength, which sometimes gets misunderstood, where people think you don’t need help, or you don’t need support.”

Steve Banks apologized about the incident to Headley and the people of New York City.

“It was utterly unacceptable,” said Banks. “What happened to Ms. Headley when she turned to us for help has caused me to look into the mirror to see what more I can do to deepen reforms.”

Since the incident, the HRA peace officers that escalated the incident are on modified duty with no client contact, according to Banks. A social worker pilot at job centers in each of the five boroughs was implemented on Monday, and all HRA officers have been to retraining sessions, which have been attended by the commissioner.

HRA officers will wear body cameras, implicit bias training has been implemented for all 17,000 DSS staff members, and the DSS Chief Diversity and Equity Officer was appointed in December.

Finally, NYPD intervention will only be used as a last resort going forward.

Johnson also introduced 13 bills to improve the experience of public assistance recipients on Monday. One of the bills presented at City Hall was Intro. 1333 by Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica).

“My bill…will require the department to…issue a quarterly report on use of force incidents that occur in at a DSS/HRA office,” said Adams. “This bill will also require the New York Police Department to issue a quarterly report on use of force incidents…We must ensure there is not another Jazmine Headley incident.”