It all started on Friday the 9th of November 2018. Anne Marie Washington, a 57 year old West Indian mother of two and home health aide took the Q train from Manhattan to her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At around 7:30PM, she stepped off at her regular stop—Church Avenue—and made her way up the stairs that led off the platform. Suddenly, a white man in a black hoodie approached from behind. He called her a “black bitch” then attacked her. Punches flew, repeatedly striking her back and stomach. He then stabbed her in the upper back with a screwdriver. This was only the start of Miss Washington’s ordeal.
A woman leapt to Miss Washington’s defense. The attacker said “you black bitches” and jumped on a south-bound train towards Coney Island, making his getaway. The woman helped Miss Washington up the stairs and out of the station where they waited for the police to arrive.
The scene was captured by a video posted to Facebook by another witness, Kezia Bernard-Nau. In the video, Miss Washington stands at the station entrance, distressed and wrapped in her large puffer jacket. In front of her, a police officer took notes near a puddle of blood. The woman who helped Miss Washington angrily said “this white man saw her and started punching her in her face because she was black.” The camera pans to a shaken Miss Washington who said “he started roughing me up, I’m not feeling well at all.”
The Emergency Medical Services arrived and examined Miss Washington at the scene. She then filed a police report and was left to walk home unescorted. Later that night, she woke up and started vomiting blood and realized she had been stabbed. She called 911 and was taken to Kings County Hospital where she underwent emergency surgery for a collapsed lung. Miss Washington recovered but was this handled the way it should have been?
Miss Washington not noticing she had been stabbed is not uncommon. A gunshot to the chest can feel like a punch at first due to a combination of adrenaline and endorphins. Emergency personnel, however, should have noticed and the consequences of this error could have been disastrous. While rare, if left untreated, a collapsed lung or the medical term—pneumothorax—can be fatal.
When emergency personnel arrive at the scene of an incident, they must first undertake a primary survey – an initial assessment that checks for any immediate threats to life. This includes checking whether a patient is conscious or breathing. They are also supposed to check for any major signs of bleeding, as mentioned in The EMT Basic National Standard Curriculum which calls itself “a core curriculum of minimum required information” for the training of prospective emergency personnel. In the case of Miss Washington, whoever examined her did not check extensively enough to notice she had been stabbed in the upper back.
This raises the question: why? Bruce Wapen, an emergency medicine physician for more than two decades with Mills Peninsula Medical Centre in California, notes that nobody knows the circumstances of the evening as well as the EMTs (Emergency Medical Technician) on the scene. Blunt puncture wounds (from a screwdriver), for example, don’t create as much blood as sharper instruments, and Miss Washington wore a large puffer jacket. Still, Wapen said, “you would assume that, if they had looked at her neck, they would have been able to see that bleeding puncture wound.”
Leslie Gregory, however, believed that racial bias lied behind the failure by medical practitioners to notice the stab wound. A former EMT and founder of the non-profit Right to Health, she argued that subtle racism, or racial bias has as much of an effect on minority people’s lives as overtly racist behavior and this, in turn, affects health disparities in America.
Several studies have shown, including this one by the National Academy of Sciences that black people are systematically undertreated for pain. In addition, a study from Oregon found that EMTs and paramedics were 40 percent less likely to give pain medication to black Americans than white Americans.
“When the EMS personnel roll up on scene and fail to do even the most basic and simple survey then we must call it what it is,” said Gregory.
Anthony Beckford, Flatbush resident and head of a police accountability group called Brooklyn CopWatch Patrol, first heard about what happened to Miss Washington when he was on his way to the bank that night. He started receiving messages with a link to the video Kezia posted to Facebook. Realizing this was serious, he contacted someone he knew who was close to the scene who told him that the police were being too calm about the situation, and that there seemed to be no urgency. This didn’t sit well with him. “Any incident that happens in our community, it’s downplayed,” said Beckford.
It wasn’t a surprise to Beckford, then, when the initial position of the police began to circulate in local media reports: this was not a hate crime, but rather an “attempted burglary.” Beckford got into contact with Miss Washington’s children, Anthony and Itisha, and set up a press conference the next day. They pushed for this to be called a hate crime, which, to Beckford, was clear from the racial slur used before and after the assault and stabbing. “The only intent of robbery was the intent of robbing her of her life,” said Beckford.
Interestingly, the NYPD’s dedicated Hate Crime Task Force clearly states in a brochure on the NYPD website that “if someone calls a person a hateful name because of their race alone… and then assaults them, it then becomes a hate crime.”
The NYPD’s initial decision did nothing but stir up outrage in the community. Beckford’s press conference, which initially only captured the attention of News12 and a blogger, sent a ripple effect that eventually reached local politicians like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams who was quoted on November 11th as saying “this is a mother who was assaulted for no other reason but based on what we hear is her ethnicity. That is unacceptable in this community, as extremely diverse as it is.”
It wasn’t until three full days after Miss Washington’s attack that the NYPD started investigating it as a hate crime. While this was welcome news to the community and Beckford, it posed questions as to why this pressure was needed in the first place. Racial bias, unconscious or conscious, is one possible reason that Beckford put forward: “In the black community, there is no added motivation to make sure someone is held accountable.”
Relevant to Beckford’s argument is the fact that, since 2018, the arrest-rate for anti-black crimes in New York has been lower than any other type of bias crime (that has received over 20 complaints). According to NYPD data, roughly 29 percent of hate crimes against black people led to an arrest. Meanwhile, roughly 75 percent of hate crimes against gay men have led to an arrest. And for hate crimes against the Jewish community, the most common victims of hate crimes in New York, it’s roughly 32 percent.
The NYPD’s relationship with racial bias has risen to national prominence and outrage on more than one occasion in the past decade. On top of the tragic and famous case of Eric Garner’s choke-hold death in 2014, a federal court found the NYPD liable for unconstitutional racial profiling in their stop-and-frisk searches in a historic 2013 court ruling (Floyd et al. vs. City of New York).
Darius Charney, who was lead counsel in the Floyd case representing the plaintiffs, said the NYPD have “a pathological resistance to acknowledging racial bias.” He mentioned a report released by the NYPD Office of the Inspector General earlier this year which found that the NYPD had not substantiated a single complaint of biased policing against them between October 2014 and January 2019. They received 2495 complaints, 67 percent of which were from the black community. Charney explained, “unless you can provide smoking gun evidence, they automatically conclude there was no racial bias at play.”
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
On the 20th of August 2019, nine months after the assault on Miss Washington, the police matched DNA found on the screwdriver to Aleksejs Saveljevs, a 33-year-old white man of Russian nationality whose DNA had already been on file for a previous offense, according to a press release from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. The surprise for most people was that, in fact, Saveljevs had already been arrested nine months earlier, on November 15, 2018 and was off the streets the day after his alleged assault on Miss Washington.
It was a busy week for Saveljevs. On Thursday November 8, 2018, Aleksejs allegedly attacked an off-duty police officer. Then, on the evening of the 9th, he allegedly assaulted Miss Washington. He was then committed to Bellevue Psychiatric hospital the day after where he allegedly assaulted a fellow patient in a dispute over toilet paper. On November 15th, he was arrested for the alleged assault on the off-duty officer and sent to Rikers Island Prison where he has remained ever since. For the alleged assault on Miss Washington, Saveljevs is currently being charged with attempted murder as a hate crime. He is being held at a bail of $175,001.
“I’m not gonna lie. When I got the news, I cried,” admitted Beckford who explained that he immediately got into contact with Miss Washington and her children. When he did, “Miss Washington was still in Trinidad because she was scared for her life, that this person was still out there.” She is still in Trinidad today.