Ithaca, N.Y. — On the day her 14-year-old daughter was flying alone for the first time, Angela Brown made sure to get to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport early.
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She took a cab up to the airport an hour early and grabbed a snack in the airport cafeteria while she waited. But when the 2:30 p.m. flight arrived and passengers disembarked, Akira Brown was not one of them.
At first, Angela Brown thought her daughter was just a little slow leaving the plane. But once the cabin crew exited, Brown became concerned. She asked US Airways staff for more information. Eventually, Deputy Gerald Hoffman of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department got involved. And when Brown refused to leave the airport without her daughter, he arrested Brown — charging her with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Brown and Hoffman’s versions of the encounter vary — Hoffman claims Brown cursed and was disrupting airport activity — but both versions end with Brown in handcuffs at the sheriff’s department. Now, Brown is suing Hoffman, and says she suffered physical and psychological trauma as a direct result of the arrest.
What’s more, she says she wouldn’t have been treated the way she was that June day in 2007 were she not African-American and lower class.
At the center of Brown’s legal case is the question of whether Hoffman had enough reason to arrest her, and it’s the issue that was cited by an appeals court in its decision to hear the case this year. The Tompkins County judge that previously heard the case did not dismiss Brown’s accusations of false arrest, though he dismissed all other charges she brought against Hoffman.
And in fact, though Brown was arrested, a Lansing judge dismissed the charges against her. The 2007 decision stated that “Ms. Brown’s conduct was reasonable when taking her circumstances and temporary mental state into consideration.”
Angela Brown’s Version
When her daughter did not get off the flight, Brown says she asked airline personnel for help and was given a 1-800 number by a US Airways employee. Brown asked for more help from that employee, who said she couldn’t tell her any more, because the internal system didn’t track Akira Brown further than her flight transfer in Philadelphia, according to court documents.
Brown then tried to get help from another US Airways employee, who also said she couldn’t help Brown any further, so Brown asked if another employee might be able to, court documents state.
Although Brown says she didn’t raise her voice or curse, Deputy Hoffman was called to the US Airways counter. Hoffman asked Brown if he could help her, and she refused. One of the US Airways staff members then told Hoffman that Brown wouldn’t accept the 1-800 number and Hoffman told Brown, “That’s it, you’re out of here,” according to court documents. Brown then did not leave the airport, and said she needed to know where her daughter was.
According to Brown’s affidavit, she was then handcuffed by Hoffman. Brown claims that Hoffman pinned her against a large planter at the airport even though she wasn’t resisting arrest.
Brown says that in the process, Hoffman — who, according to court documents, weighs over twice as much as her — injured her: causing a wrist sprain, neck sprain, a “huge” contusion on her leg, and a lot of pain.
Deputy Gerald Hoffman’s Version
Hoffman declined to comment for this story, as did current Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing, since he was not sheriff at the time.
Hoffman’s lawyer and the county attorney, Jonathan Wood, did issue a statement saying that Brown’s description of her arrest is inconsistent with Hoffman’s account. (Brown is being represented by Ithaca attorney Ed Kopko.)
“Gerald Hoffman … served with distinction as a Deputy in the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department for over 23 years before retiring in 2013,” Wood said in an email. “The statements of all witnesses taken at the time of the arrest are consistent with the account of Deputy Hoffman. The facts will be determined at a civil trial.”
In court documents, Hoffman says when he was called to the US Airways counter that day, one of the US Airways staff members asked him to speak to Brown.
According to Hoffman’s affidavit, when he first arrived on the scene, there was nothing to suggest Brown had committed a crime, and she had done nothing to justify Hoffman telling her to leave the airport. Both Brown and Hoffman’s accounts agree that Brown told the deputy she did not need his help, and Hoffman’s statement acknowledges that Brown had the right to refuse help without being arrested.
The two parties’ accounts differ in that Hoffman claims Brown was “a little bit loud” and was “verbally abusive,” according to court documents. According to Hoffman’s affidavit, Hoffman says Brown swore and accused the US Airways staff of having a bad attitude. Hoffman also said this incident disrupted the entire airport, according to the affidavit.
According to his account, Hoffman told Brown to leave, and grabbed her arm to get her to leave; he says she was not under arrest until she pulled away and tried to stay in the airport, according to court documents.
Despite differences between the two parties’ accounts, they do agree that while arresting Brown, Hoffman pinned her to a large planter in the airport. He says this happened because she was resisting arrest, according to court documents.
What’s changed and what hasn’t
It’s taken years for this case to wind its way through the legal system, and much has changed since that 2007 day that Angela Brown was arrested. Brown no longer lives in Ithaca and Hoffman has since retired. But Brown says the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, prove that little has changed in the way police treat minorities.
In her case, Brown points to the way, when initially interacting with her, Hoffman assumed she was at fault, rather than help her locate her daughter. As a result, she spent three hours at the sheriff’s department, handcuffed to a chair, worried “out of her mind” about her daughter — and fearing the worst.
“I don’t know what I’m arrested for; I have no idea what I did to get handcuffs on me — and now I’m sitting on the back of a sheriff’s cruiser, and everything on my mind is ‘What’s going on with my daughter?’” Brown said. “I didn’t know where she was, if anybody kidnapped her … I didn’t know anything.”
Brown says that she hopes her case will raise consciousness about these issues and encourage society to prioritize empathy over judgment.
Though she says the arrest didn’t make locating her daughter any easier, Angela and Akira Brown did reunite that day, several hours after the flight was supposed to get in.
It turned out that her daughter had been redirected to a later, connecting flight.