Rickia Young had successfully lulled her 2-year-old to sleep in his car seat when she drove toward a normally busy West Philadelphia intersection late on a clear October night. She encountered a cluster of Philadelphia police officers who had helmets and shields and batons. The air smelled of burnt plastic.
Young needed to turn the SUV around. But it was just hours after police fatally shot a Black man a few blocks away, and people were hurling bottles and rocks at anyone in blue. Startled behind the wheel, her 16-year-old nephew also in tow, Young took in the dizzying scene: police in front of her, agitators behind her. She was stuck.
As she searched for an out, two dozen officers charged, swarming the vehicle. Young recalled her panicked nephew yelling, “Lock the doors!”
Officers ordered, “Open the f—ing door!” and “Get out of the f—ing car,” Young said, before they bashed the SUV with batons, shattered the back windows, yanked open the front doors, and ripped her and her nephew out, throwing them to the ground and beating them.
She let out a scream. “My son is in the car!”
“He was petrified,” she remembers of the brief glimpse she got of her toddler as she was being dragged out of the vehicle. “Pet-ri-fied.”
Today, her son bites his nails, pulls at his hair, and jumps in his sleep. And when asked about the police, Young said, he bangs his little fist and repeats what he heard: ”open door” and “f—ing door.”
It’s been about a month since the early-morning hours of Oct. 27, when Young, a 28-year-old single mother who lives in North Philadelphia, drove to the west end of the city, planning to pick up her nephew and cruise home on Chestnut Street.
Instead, she ended up bleeding in the back of a police van, then handcuffed to a hospital bed, desperate to learn where officers had taken her 2-year-old son.
Since then, parts of her story have been shared around the world, first after a cell phone video of the melee went viral, then when the national police union posted a photo of a Philadelphia officer clutching her toddler alongside a fake story that claimed the boy was lost during “violent riots” and saved by police.
Young spoke publicly for the first time during a November interview, during which she called for justice for herself and others impacted by police accused of brutality. Neither she nor her nephew was charged with a crime, both say they weren’t involved in violence or looting that night, and police still haven’t said what prompted the show of force.
Days after the incident, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — whose department was already under fire for its response to unrest earlier in the year — said that the video was “quite concerning” and that one officer had been placed on restricted duty pending the outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation.
Today, five officers from multiple districts are on restricted duty as that probe is ongoing, said a police spokesperson, Sgt. Eric Gripp. The department declined to make Outlaw available for an interview last week.
Responding to written questions, Gripp said the open investigation means officials are limited “as to the specificity of the information that can be provided.” An Inquirer request for body-worn camera footage remains under review.
Meanwhile, the three family members in the SUV that night are navigating the constellation of traumas associated with being high-profile — but so far largely faceless — victims of police force caught on camera.
The bones in the 16-year-old’s hand were shattered, requiring surgery in mid-November, the teenager’s lawyer said. Young was badly bruised, showed signs of internal bleeding, and had a swollen trachea. Her left arm remains in a sling because of intense shoulder pain. And her son had a welt on his head.
The 16-year-old and his family don’t want his name public — he’s already received racist harassment online. And Young doesn’t want her 2-year-old’s name or face published either, fearing he’ll be branded with this for life.
She wants every officer involved fired.
“It’s not all bad cops out here,” she said. “But that night, in my eyes, every single last one of them were evil.”
Young said she was resting at her sister’s house in North Philadelphia on Oct. 26, not looking much at her phone or following the news as the west side of the city fell into turmoil.
Late in the afternoon, two Philadelphia police officers shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who family said was experiencing a mental health crisis. He walked toward police while wielding a knife when they fired more than a dozen shots as his mother looked on.
Protests materialized within hours. People from the neighborhood and outside it decried police just blocks away from where Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a MOVE house in 1985, killing 11 and destroying 61 homes in an act of brutality against Black Philadelphians that scarred the city for decades.
This, mere months after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was caught on video and set off a nationwide wave of civil unrest that hit West Philadelphia in late May, when people broke into shops and set police cars aflame. Philadelphia police responded by indiscriminately firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at protesters and bystanders around 52nd Street.
Hundreds of people went to the same corridor again after police killed Wallace and a video of his death circulated online. Many were there to protest. Some broke into stores, vandalized property, and set a police SUV on fire. Dozens of officers were injured, including one who was hospitalized after someone driving a pickup truck struck her.
As the unrest continued past 1 a.m., Young’s nephew called her from West Philadelphia, asking for a ride home from his friend’s house. She wasn’t going to leave her 2-year-old son unattended, she said, and figured the whir of the SUV — her sister’s vehicle — would put him to sleep.
So Young picked up her nephew, then started back home, turning right onto the one-way Chestnut Street and heading east toward 52nd at about 1:45 a.m.
She wishes she’d gone a different way.
“It was just like, wrong turn, all hell broke loose,” she said. “Literally, hell broke loose.”
Video of the incident was shot by Aapril Rice, a 30-year-old who lives near where it occurred and streamed the police response live on Instagram.
The video shows a crowd that had scattered near a Foot Locker that was being burglarized. Two vehicles enter the scene: a pickup truck that drove in the middle of the street near where police were stationed, while a different vehicle, the SUV Young was driving, was stopped with its backup lights on and facing the sidewalk.
About two dozen officers, some holding shields, advanced west down the street and encircled the vehicle. At least 30 more officers milled about at the intersection. As police approach, the video shows, the SUV backup lights turn off.
Rice narrates what she saw next, saying “whoa!” as police smash the windows with batons and pull Young from the driver’s seat. The video then shows an officer leaning into the backseat and pulling something out, as Rice says: “Somebody just hopped out with a baby!”
Young said police threw her to the ground and beat her with batons, fists, and feet for what felt “like forever.” The video shows at least eight officers surrounding her while she was on the ground.
Philadelphia police policy says officers may use a baton when someone is “aggressive or assaultive” and there is an “immediate likelihood” they may hurt themselves or others. In Young’s case, officers wielded batons even before she was out of the vehicle.
Police also sprayed a chemical agent, Young said, making her feel as if her face was “melting” while she was being handcuffed. Stephen O’Hanlon, an attorney for the 16-year-old, said the teenager also relayed that his eyes were burning. Gripp said that whether police used pepper spray would be determined as part of the ongoing investigation.
Young said she begged for her son and asked for water or a napkin to wipe the chemicals from her face. She lay on the sidewalk handcuffed and breathing heavily, she said.
“An officer said to me, ‘You can breathe hard all you want, I’m still not taking off these handcuffs,’ ” she recalled. “And I just kept asking, ‘Where’s my son? Where’s my son?’ Nobody would answer me.”
Gripp did not comment specifically on Young’s recollection but said officers are trained to avoid keeping a restrained person on their back or stomach because of the possibility of “positional asphyxia.” If a person must be in such a position temporarily, officers are trained to closely monitor them and, if someone is having trouble breathing, to seek medical assistance immediately.
Young said that after she was pulled off the ground, officers loaded her into a police van alongside two other women. She said she yelled again: “Where is my son?” to which she said the officer in the driver’s seat replied her toddler was going to “a better place,” then said that place was “DHS,” presumably a reference to the Department of Human Services, the city’s child-welfare agency.
“My heart just flew out my chest at that point,” she said.
As hip-hop played through the speakers, the van ripped around corners, causing Young, who was handcuffed and not strapped in, to jerk back and forth, she said. One of the other women in the wagon took a photo inside it, showing Young bleeding from the face while she sat, handcuffed, on top of what appears to be a seat belt.
Aggressive, seat belt-less rides known as “rough rides” or “nickel rides” have a long, fraught history in Philadelphia, but police policy says all detainees are to wear a seat belt while being transported. Police said that whether she was belted will be determined as part of the ongoing investigation.
Department policy also says officers should transport someone needing medical attention directly to the nearest hospital. Young said she was driven first to police headquarters at Seventh and Race Streets, away from three hospitals in West Philadelphia and 4½ miles from where she was beaten and detained.
She said she asked an officer at headquarters for a napkin to wipe her still-burning face. They offered her a Clorox wipe, she said, then took her to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City for treatment.
Doctors performed X-rays and gave her pain medication, Young said. She was discharged, and officers took her back to the Roundhouse for processing, where they placed her in a holding cell and indicated she was being held for an assault on police.
Then, they released her. No charges filed. She’s not sure what time it was but remembers the sun was up.
Doctors had told Young earlier in life that she was likely unable to have children, so it was unexpected when she sat her mother down three years ago to tell her that she was pregnant.
This year, Young and her son, whom she calls her best friend, have spent more time together than usual, playing in parks and watching sports, after she lost one of her jobs at a concert venue because of the pandemic. She said she hasn’t been back to work at her other job as a home health-care aide as she tends to her own injuries.
“Besides my family,” she says, “he’s all I have.”
The child is full of energy, the only thing slowing him are the signs of hearing loss he’s shown since birth, Young said. He typically wears hearing aids during the day.
But for weeks in November he went without them. They were left in the SUV police smashed on Oct. 27, along with Young’s wallet and purse. Gripp said he didn’t have any information indicating the items were seized or located. The vehicle remains in an impound lot, and Young’s attorneys are working with police to get it back.
On the night of the incident, it was Young’s mother and sister who rushed out the door past 2 a.m. to find the toddler. Young had spoken to her sister briefly from the cell phone of one of the other women in the police wagon.
Young’s mother first went to 52nd Street, where officers relayed that the child was with police in Center City, near the DHS office at 15th and Arch Streets, Young’s attorney Kevin Mincey said. There, she came across a police vehicle parked near 15th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
Two officers sat in the front, Mincey said, and the boy was in the backseat. He was in his own car seat, and she could see glass in it. Young said she later learned that when officers allowed her mother to take the 2-year-old, she picked up her grandson and glass fell out of his hair.
It’s unclear where the child was kept between when he was separated from his mother and released to his grandmother, a time period police said was no longer than an hour. Several photos captured by professional photographers at the scene near 52nd Street show officers pulling the boy from the vehicle and holding him. He was barefoot.
Young said he’d kicked off his shoes in the car because he’s 2 and hates shoes.
So she cries to this day when she sees the photo of a young, white female officer seeming to hug her child. The officer in the photo was not wearing a mask, though Philadelphia police have since April been required to wear masks while on duty.
It’s not clear who took the picture. Philadelphia police are not supposed to use personal cell phones or cameras to film crime scenes except under extraordinary circumstances.
Two days later, the photo of Young’s toddler in a camo T-shirt, appearing to receive medical attention, was all over the internet. It had made its way to the national Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union, which shared the image alongside a caption that read:
The Inquirer asked the FOP for comment within hours of the post going up on Facebook and Twitter. About 30 minutes later, the FOP deleted the posts, writing in a statement the next day that they did so after learning “of conflicting accounts of the circumstances under which the child came to be assisted by the officer.”
Riley H. Ross III, one of the attorneys representing Young and her son, said the image and fake story continue to spread on Facebook, and lawyers have sent letters to posters demanding the image and caption be removed. They want an apology from the FOP, which did not respond to a request for further comment last week.
Not only was the post harmful to Young, Ross said, but it had “racial undertones” that implied the people of the majority-Black neighborhood didn’t care about a child wandering barefoot during “violent riots.”
“We’re not going to let them paint the people of West Philadelphia this way,” he said. “We’re not going to let them paint Rickia this way. And we’re not going to let them be the saviors for this child, when in fact, the police were the ones that terrified this child.”
Young, who is Black, said while she believes her race played a role in how police acted that night, “no one deserves the treatment that I got.” Before this incident, she said, she hadn’t interacted with police much beyond being pulled over and issued a warning.
Now, she doesn’t want to be anywhere near them. When she went to the hospital for treatment days later, two uniformed officers walked by the room.
She closed her eyes and pulled the blanket over her head.
Commissioner Outlaw said three days after the incident that while she didn’t know all the details, she had seen the video, and “what I saw, it was quite concerning.” She said at the time that one officer seen in the video “using the strikes against the car” was placed on restricted duty pending the outcome of the internal investigation.
Police didn’t release details on the identities of the five officers currently on restricted duty. The local police union declined to comment.
Gripp said Young has not agreed to be interviewed as part of the internal investigation. Mincey said that “we don’t need to participate in that” and that “[Internal Affairs] is for the police, it’s not for the public.”
Police misconduct, on or off-duty, rarely results in officers losing their jobs permanently because of the city’s arbitration process. An Inquirer analysis of 170 police arbitration decisions between 2011 and 2019 found the local police union successfully had discipline overturned or reduced in more than 70% of cases.
Ross said he hopes suing the department will force police to dramatically rethink training that he says creates an “us vs. them mentality.” Police said recently that after the killing of Wallace, they may reintroduce more extensive de-escalation training that was quietly discontinued years ago.
Young’s attorneys are still preparing a complaint. A city spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.
O’Hanlon said he and Israel Schwartz, another attorney representing the 16-year-old, also plan to file a suit in the coming weeks. Among the details under consideration: who will be sued. Ideally, O’Hanlon said, they’d name individual officers as defendants.
Federal police brutality cases are typically lodged against the institution. Officers are generally shielded by a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity,” which protects public-sector workers from civil suits, except those who are “plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
Qualified immunity is a top target for activists who say police departments can’t be reformed while problem cops remain in their ranks.
Young has never been an activist type herself.
But she has spent weeks with little appetite, unable to sleep without feeling as if she’s lying under a pile of bricks. While she’s got a support system that includes family and her best friend, she’s also wrestled with a sense that this all could have gone differently.
Maybe no one would have known had there not been a video. Or maybe her injuries could have been worse. The woman who sat with her in the police wagon told Young she was going in and out of consciousness. “Her and my son,” Young said, “kept me awake.”
Today, she sees herself as a living testimony to the effects of police brutality.
“I’m speaking up for everyone who has lost they voice and who is scared to speak up,” she said. “I’m gonna speak up for them. Because it needs to stop. Justice has to be served.”