To the Editor: I unequivocally agree that force against an inmate should be reasonable, appropriate and used only as a last resort. With equal certitude, I believe that the city Correction Department has an impracticable and severely restrictive use-of-force policy.
Moreover, I commiserate with NYC correction officers. They have an extremely difficult and inherently dangerous job that requires management to be open-minded and fair.
NYS Penal Law Article 35 grants correction officers legal justification to use appropriate force. In addition, NYS Criminal Procedure Law Article 2 designates correction officers as peace officers, granting them authority to enforce the law in NYC jails. However, the current use-of-force policy under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Cynthia Brann virtually neutralizes the correction officer’s legal authority and ability to act, rendering them latent and inert.
Presently, correction officers are being disciplined at extraordinarily high levels for use-of-force-related incidents. Like the “Fingermen” in Allan Moore’s novel “V for Vendetta,” internal discipline units that ultimately fall under the authority and supervision of Commissioner Brann are regularly preferring charges and applying harsh punishment against uniformed staff for using force.
Also, in true Orwellian fashion, “Big Brother” is watching. Some members of Brann’s senior staff monitor surveillance cameras from their office in real time and upon seeing a use of force that they deem violates policy, will immediately call the facility and order the initiation of departmental charges. Yes, even before any investigation is commenced or reports submitted. This ubiquitous surveillance of correction officers was not the intent of the security cameras.
Many of the charges filed are due to procedural errors, inconsequential violations and simple mistakes while acting in good faith. This is overkill, like swatting a fly with a hammer.
Brann is a negative force. She has created a dystopian agency where correction officers are constantly watched and repressed. They are not treated fairly and are apprehensive of internal and external discipline, resulting in their understandable hesitancy to take action to protect themselves, others and the inmate population.
Employees need to know that they are supported. This requires action by management—not just rhetoric. That action should come in the form of good policy and fair discipline. Leadership must look through the prism of common sense and come to reasonable policy decisions.
In 2006, with an inmate population of 14,000 under then-Commissioner Martin Horn, there were 1,299 uses of force. Horn is an experienced, qualified and respected leader. He empowered his Wardens for them to succeed. In addition, he effectively utilized T.E.A.M.S. to control inmate violence and reduce uses of force. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/14/rikers-island-force.html
In 2019, with 7,500 inmates and the same number of correction officers, under Cynthia Brann there were 6,670 uses of force. This shocking increase is not because officers are now more aggressive. It is because of the inmates’ incorrigible behavior as a result of being emboldened by City Hall’s anti-correction agenda and the lack of consequences for the inmates’ actions.
Brann was appointed in October of 2017. The year before she took office, there were 4,673 uses of force. In fiscal year 2017-2018, which was Brann’s first year as Commissioner, there were 5,175 uses of force, 502 more than the previous fiscal year. In fiscal year 2018-2019, her second year in command, there were 6,670 uses of force, 1,997 more than 2016. https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2019/09/17/new-stats-show-surge-in-violence-at-rikers-island-1193798
The number of use-of-force incidents under Brann’s command is staggering and baffling, yet the evidence is indisputable and the facts speak for themselves. It’s the result of failed policies.
Would any reasonable person blame correction officers for this unprecedented amount of force? Surprisingly, this administration does, as is evidenced by the plethora of departmental charges preferred.
Today, it is not uncommon for uniformed correction staff to simultaneously have numerous departmental charges levied against them in pursuit of Brann’s attempt to reduce the amount of force used. Yet she is oblivious to the fact that her own impractical policies are precisely the cause of the departmentwide increase in the use of force.
Correction officers are being charged, suspended, modified, terminated and arrested, resulting in youthful careers being destroyed. Like lions eating their young in the wild, Brann, who is supposed to protect and defend her staff, adheres to the 7th century B.C. Draconian code of discipline to ensure that she remains in power.
According to the Department of Correction’s Twitter account, Brann met with staff on Oct. 2, 2019 with a posting reading “Because powerful things happen when we put our heads together.”
This propaganda sounds good, but sitting down with correction officers for a photo-op does nothing to keep them safe or ease discipline.
Commissioner Brann must change her approach and accept responsibility for the agency’s failures. She must assure correction officers that she will address their specific concerns. She must assert that she will support and defend them publicly. She must guarantee them that the “buck” stops with her. Correction officers will respect that, and that will increase morale.
High staff morale is the bridge that allows average work performance to cross over and become much more productive. However, when staff routinely faces departmental charges and unfair claims of comeuppance, this bridge to increased productivity cannot withstand even a slight summer breeze.
Instead of building that bridge that carries potential unlimited visibility into problem solving, Brann resorts to tunnel vision. From her bunker at Bulova she continues to preside over a work environment that is replete with danger, anxiety and trepidation.
Under the current Federal Monitor, the DOC is now a zero-sum game. In order for Brann and her acolytes to win and stay in power, uniformed employees have to lose, just like the young lion cubs.
When managers understand the human element involved in a use of force, especially a spontaneous incident, and provide good leadership, common-sense policies, fair investigations and sober discipline, everybody can accept the results. However, when the leadership is devoid of empathy for a correction officer’s daily struggles that include a combination of concerns—namely, their physical safety, emotional survival and feelings of abandonment by senior management—then ultimately everyone loses.
Former positive forces like Chief of Department Eric Taylor, First Deputy Commissioner Mark Cranston, Commissioner Martin Horn and Deputy Commissioner Errol Toulon were quintessential examples of good leadership, common-sense policies and fair discipline that spawned high morale. All of them continued with brilliant careers after their DOC service. Their leadership blueprint should be emulated by Brann and her managers.
This absolute discipline and relentless punishment of correction officers must subside, and although the managers are constrained to Brann’s code and bridled by her power, they do the agency, its employees and the citizens of the City of New York a major disservice if they do not at least speak truth to power.
As a result of Brann’s failure to provide a safe environment for correction officers and inmates, which is the cause of many uses of force, the department is at risk of being supplanted by Federal authority. Bill de Blasio and Cynthia Brann are existential threats to the NYCD.
History will not be kind to this administration.
Adjunct Assistant Professor,
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
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