Four New York City Correction officers have been suspended without pay while another 13 face disciplinary action in the case of Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, the 27-year-old transgender woman who died on Rikers Island from epileptic seizures while she was held in solitary confinement one year ago.
The announcement came as the result of an internal investigation by the Department of Correction, and three weeks after the Bronx District Attorney's Office announced that no criminality was suspected in Polanco's death.
“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement announcing disciplinary action against the officers. “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability."
Polanco was arrested in April of 2019 for a low-level misdemeanor assault charge and sent to jail on an unrelated prostitution charge because she couldn't afford the $500 in bail. While awaiting trial, Polanco was held in "restrictive housing" on Rikers Island for nine days following an alleged altercation, and suffered seizures while she was detained. She died on June 7th, 2019, inside her cell on the ninth day of solitary confinement.
The Board of Correction, which oversees the city's jails, released a scathing report earlier this week detailing the circumstances that led to Polanco's death. The report stated that "confused" Correction officers did not check on Polanco every 15 minutes, in violation of stated policy. The report found that staff left Polanco unchecked for periods of 57, 47, and 41 minutes between when she was confirmed alive and pronounced dead.Video surveillance taken from her cell block showed officers waited an hour and half to call for medical attention after she became unresponsive. Her family says the officers' negligence in providing medical care led to her death.
It's unclear what type of disciplinary action the other 13 officers will face. Neither the Mayor's Office nor the Department of Correction immediately returned a request for comment. (Those disciplinary records will ultimately become public due to the recent repeal of New York Civil Rights Law section 50-A.)
In an interview with Gothamist/WNYC, David Shanies, the attorney of Layleen Polanco's family, said the latest development is welcoming news for Polanco's family, but ultimately insufficient.
"We've heard a statement that 17 people are being disciplined, but we haven't heard who, what, or why," said Shanies. "They think that suspending or even firing individual employees is not going to save the next Layleen from dying. What we need to do is treat trans women as women, stop abusing solitary confinement, and start treating people in jail as human beings."
In a statement announcing the actions, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, said that "even one death in our custody is one too many."
She added, "And this swift and fair determination on internal discipline makes clear that the safety and well-being of people in our custody remains our top priority."
Earlier this month, following a six month investigation, Bronx DA Darcel Clark said that her office would not charge any Correction officers with a crime for Polanco's death.
Asked if they would reopen the investigation into the death, Bronx DA spokesperson Patrice O’Shaughnessy referred us to their earlier statements.
In a statement, Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction officers' union, called the suspensions "an egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented," and vowed to fight them.
"Our members are being thrown under the bus when even the Bronx District Attorney found they did nothing wrong. If there is anyone who should be held responsible for the death of Layleen Polanco it’s Commissioner Brann and her inept managers."
The article was updated to include comments from the Polanco's attorney. Katherine Fung contributed reporting.