It was an education in lactation outside the Riverhead police station Saturday, where six nursing moms and about two dozen supporters staged a public “nurse-in” event to shine a light on breastfeeding laws in New York.
“Breastfeeding should be as acceptable as bottle feeding in public,” said Jeanne Rosser of Amityville.
“The more nursing mothers breastfeed in public, the more normalized it becomes,” said Vanessa Parson of East Quogue.
“This is something that should be respected and admired, instead of being scrutinized,” said Andrea Zeledon-Mussio of Westhampton, who organized the rally in response to what she described as unpleasant dealings with the police department over her right to breastfeed in public.
At about 1 p.m., the mothers at the protest breastfed their babies without cover next to the steps of the police station.
Ms. Zeledon-Mussio said she organized the protest over what she felt was a less-than adequate response from the Riverhead police chief after she called to complain about an officer she says violated her rights in Wading River.
She had initially called police for help with a domestic matter on April 14 when the responding officer told her to “cover that up” multiple times after approaching her car and noticing she was breastfeeding.
She said he ordered her to cover up in a stern, threatening matter, enough so that her 12-year-old son who was in the backseat at the time believed she could be arrested.
After texting her husband for information on New York State law, she then informed the officer that she had a right to breastfeed her daughter in public — and that the officer was breaking the law by demanding she cover up.
“I said to him, ‘I’m going to cover up out of courtesy to you,’” she said. “But I said, ‘Let me tell you, what you’re asking me to do is actually breaking the law. He stepped back and his eyes got big. Then he went and talked to my ex and filled out the paperwork.”
Reached before Saturday’s event, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller — as well as other sources within the department — described the officer in question as one of the more polite officers on the force, and one who has an impeccable record from his two years with the department.
“From his point of view, he was thinking about both of them,” Chief Hegermiller said. “He didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable in front of him, or accuse him later of looking where he shouldn’t be looking.”
“All he did was ask her to cover up, which she did,” he continued. “When you call police, you need to give them your 100 percent undivided attention for the five minutes you’re being interviewed. It’s just common courtesy.”
Ms. Zeledon-Mussio told the newspaper she had a hard time understanding the chief’s logic.
She told a reporter Chief Hegermiller told her something similar when she called to complain, informing her the officer was in part trying to avoid a sexual harassment complaint.
“I don’t think any police department should operate in a manner where they break the law because they are afraid of liabilities,” Ms. Zeledon-Mussio said. “Take the breastfeeding out of it. Any time a police officer responds to something, he’s going to sit there [afraid to act]? What is that?”
And, she suggested, if the officer was concerned about her comfort, he could have called a female officer or waited in his car until she had finished.
Although headlines in other news outlets indicated Ms. Zeledon-Mussio is suing the department, she said she has not taken any legal action.
She said the lawyers she had contacted on the East End had declined her case.
“It’s very incestuous out here” when it comes to police, prosecutors and lawyers, she said, adding she had met Thursday in Hempstead with a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
She also has filed no formal written complaint — but said she plans to do so Monday with the town supervisor, who also serves as police commissioner.
“I thought contacting the police chief myself was a complaint,” she said, adding that she might not have taken any further action, had the chief simply apologized and recognized the error.
“If the chief would have said, I’m sorry, I’ll see that these guys get some sensitivity training,” she said. “But his tone was along the lines of, this is all your fault and not my problem.”
Chief Hegermiller said he believed the whole matter to be “ridiculous.”
“We’re very supportive and sensitive here at our police department,” he said. “Most of us are moms and dads and wholeheartedly belive in breastfeeding children.”
Ms. Zeledon-Mussio’s husband, Quanah Miller, said the couple was most bothered by the chief’s “handling of the situation.”
He also said he hoped Saturday’s event would help draw attention and educate not just the police but the public at large about the law, and the naturalness of breastfeeding.
“For me it boils down to the social stigma in this country,” said Mr. Miller, who said he’s traveled many different places in the world as a member of the military and has learned that in most countries, public breastfeeding isn’t given a second thought. “In this country, boobs have become all about sex, but they serve a real, actual purpose. It’s also something some here look down upon as being for less-fortunate people.”