When Police Brutalize Pregnant Women

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Photo: Ebby May/Getty Images

Police-body-camera footage that surfaced recently shows two California cops wrestling an eight-months-pregnant black woman to the ground as she screams, “Please! I’m pregnant!” in late January. A white woman who has not been identified called the Barstow, California, cops after she alleges Charlena Michelle Cooks was acting “crazy” and punched her window after a dispute. “I don't see a crime that has been committed,” said one of the officers before walking over to Cooks. Cooks said she was dropping her daughter off at school during the incident, and it was the two of them who were threatened by the white driver after they disagreed over whether a driveway was one-way. “I felt like he took her word over mine automatically,” Cooks told CNN. “He automatically assumed I was guilty.”

The video shows Cooks telling one officer that she goes by Michelle, her middle name. She then made a phone call, and was explaining the situation when the officer said she had “two minutes” to produce her ID. While the officer was within legal bounds in asking Cooks for ID and her full name, she was equally within the law in her refusal to provide it; in California, you have the right not to show your ID to law enforcement in most cases.

The officer grabs Cooks, who begins to scream and shout, yelling that she’s pregnant and begging him not to touch her. A second officer joins in; they pin Cooks to a chain-link fence and wrestle her to the ground on her stomach. “I was in unbelievable pain,” Cooks said of the incident, adding that she felt the officers treated her “like an animal, like a monster, like I didn’t exist, like I was not human.”

A judge dropped the resisting-arrest charge against Cooks, but it still isn’t clear why she was arrested in the first place. "It's pretty horrifying," Jessica Price, an ACLU attorney, told CNN of the video. "A lot of people are going to look at this and going to say there is some level of racial profiling and bias going on here." The ACLU released the video last week and contends that Cooks's arrest was wrongful. Barstow police have launched an investigation.

Cooks’s case is but one in a spate of recent video-documented incidents showcasing excessive force used against pregnant women. Last year, NYPD officers in Brooklyn threw Sandra Amezquita, then five months pregnant, belly-down on the street. Amezquita suffered vaginal bleeding, extensive bruising, and abdominal pains. “The first thing I thought was they killed my baby and they’re going to kill my wife,” Ronel Lemos told the Daily News of the incident. In Denver, a bystander filmed a cop intentionally tripping a suspect’s seven-and-a-half-months-pregnant girlfriend. In a particularly disturbing incident, Idaho police killed a mentally ill pregnant woman by shooting her in the stomach with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Jeanetta Riley fell to the ground and officers approached, but instead of offering first aid, they cuffed her hands behind her back. Even though Riley’s death was captured on the police-car dash cam, the department was subsequently cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

This year, in Quinlan, Texas, a sheriff was filmed while repeatedly punching a 38-weeks-pregnant woman in the back of her head. Deanna Robinson was already in cuffs when the beating began. During the incident, Robinson was pressed against the kitchen counter and her stomach hit the counter again and again. She gave birth to a healthy child a month later, but Kenya Harris wasn’t so lucky. She’s filed an excessive-force lawsuit against Georgia police after one officer allegedly slammed her into the ground so hard it caused her to black out and miscarry, all because he didn’t like her tone of voice. She came to with the officer on her back.

Many of these incidents were caught on camera, and the documentation vividly demonstrates how deeply ingrained the use of excessive force has become. In video after video, women facing arrest mention their pregnancy status repeatedly. It's chilling to see “I’m pregnant” become a desperate plea.