Lessons To Be Learned In Tarrytown: A Case Study Involving Police Procedures In The Age Of Black Lives Matter
By Barrett Seaman–
Remember the famous captain’s speech from Cool Hand Luke? “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
That analysis seems apt when applied to an incident that has stirred passions in Tarrytown this week. It involves a Black woman who is running for public office and the Tarrytown Police Department. While it ended without conflict and without any charges, it managed to scratch the tender skin rubbed raw by the murder of George Floyd and other Blacks at the hands of cops, by the social unrest that followed and by the multiple examinations of police conduct that have touched virtually every community in the country, including Tarrytown. And at its core were a few simple words that were said–or not said.
The incident took place last Tuesday, April 27th in front of the Washington Irving School on South Broadway between Benedict and Franklin Streets. It is a spot where police regularly assign an officer to direct traffic at the beginning and end of the school day, a place where auto and pedestrian traffic—especially in the morning—is at its heaviest and most dangerous. For decades, junior officers assigned there have been warned never to leave their post until the last kid is in the school building.
On Tuesday morning, Police Officer (PO) Davonn Warner had that job. As he stood in the intersection, signaling cars to turn or stop for crossing children, watching as parents drove up to the front of the school to drop their children off, a woman tried to get his attention. According to the woman, Tasha Young, who is running in the June Democratic Primary to unseat Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, PO Warner started to move in her direction but then stopped and returned to the middle of the street, presumably obeying standing orders to stay on post. Wearing both a mask and a face shield, she called out to him, asking if it was all right for her to stand on the sidewalk in front of the school.
By Ms. Young’s account, she further explained that she wanted to be there to hand out campaign flyers to parents as they dropped their kids off, and she wanted to be sure she wasn’t violating any school rules. By PO Warner’s account, conveyed later when debriefed by senior officers, he did not hear that second part but nonetheless indicated to her that it was okay for her to be there.
Ms. Young and her accompanying staff then proceeded to hand out flyers to adults, either as they passed by on foot or drove up to the drop-off area, in which case they would proffer a flyer through the open window of the car. One bystander, whom PO Warner took to be a parent, apparently gestured to him as she passed by, as if to say, “What’s that all about?” That caused him to activate his walkie talkie and report that a “concerned parent advised him of female handing out flyers on school grounds,” (though Ms. Young was not on school grounds).
It’s worth noting that, like Tasha Young, Officer Davonn Warner is Black.
PO Warner’s call-in to the station then triggered what Chief John Barbelet says is standard police procedure, which was to send two officers to investigate. Those officers were Sergeants Andrew Jones and Brian Macom, both of whom are white. Each drove a police-marked SUV up to the school and parked. According to Chief Barbelet, only Sgt. Jones approached Ms. Young while Sgt. Macom hung back some 30 feet.
Ms. Young later said she was “shaken” by the sight of the two police vehicles but followed the time-honored strategy adopted by African Americans when dealing with the police, which is to “comply and survive.”
She told Sgt. Jones who she was and what she was doing. Upon hearing that she was campaigning for public office, Jones immediately said that she was fine doing what she was doing and where she was doing it—not violating school district policy by campaigning on school property. According to both Ms. Young and Chief Barbelet (who later reviewed Jones’ body cam footage), the two had a congenial conversation in which Ms. Young served up some of her campaign stump speech about why she should be elected Town Supervisor.
Though it was by then established that no laws had been broken, Sgt. Jones nonetheless took down information about Ms. Young—name, address, date of birth, and so on. She complied but later said she was alarmed by what seemed like an inquisition. Why was all that necessary, she wondered, if she had done nothing wrong?
The two officers left the scene and Tasha Young continued to hand out flyers until the school drop-off traffic dwindled to nothing. Still bothered by Jones’ request for personal details, however, she drove down to police headquarters at Depot Plaza to find out why she had been interrogated and why all that personal information was necessary. She rang the bell outside police headquarters and explained who she was. Moments later, a side door opened and Sgt. Jones emerged and greeted Ms. Young cordially. Her accompanying staff member recorded their conversation on her cell phone and later posted it on Facebook (To view the video, see:. https://youtu.be/r_oFEfDhOy8.
In that second exchange, Ms. Young asked why she was asked for her date of birth. Sgt. Jones replied that it was standard procedure, but that had she refused, he would not have pressed the issue. He continued to answer her questions until Ms. Young advised her aide that she could stop recording the conversation.
As word of the initial incident circulated through the village, moving through emails among progressives and onto Facebook and other social media, many questions emerged. Why did PO Warner call in to headquarters? Who was the “concerned parent” who prompted him to do so, and why? Was it simply because Tasha Young is Black?
On the other hand, did Tasha Young fully explain to PO Warner that she was campaigning and intended to hand out flyers? Had he heard and comprehended that, perhaps he would have explained that to the “concerned parent” and not felt obliged to call it into headquarters.
Protocol notwithstanding, was it really necessary to dispatch two SUVs to the scene, especially when the police knew that the situation involved a Black woman who might be unduly rattled by such a show of police force, given the African American experience in the country?
For possible answers, look to Cool Hand Luke: failures to communicate.
Cops are trained to be cautious. It’s likely that PO Warner erred on the side of caution by calling in the incident, thereby avoiding a situation that might otherwise have gotten out of hand because of his neglect. As Chief Barbelet explained, protocol is to send two cars into an unknown situation. One never knows if that person in front of Washington Irving School is handing out pornography or information on where to buy drugs in town. Far-fetched, maybe, but as the Chief says, “Our officers want to get home safely at night too.”
In retrospect, Tasha Young hopes that the incident will be a learning opportunity for everyone—about procedures that send unintended messages, about attitude, about flexibility.
The Police Department in Tarrytown, like cops across the country, has just spent ten months under the microscope about their procedures and attitudes and relations with their community. With any luck, there are small lessons to be learned—from an incident that ultimately came out okay—for the police as well as for the people they serve.