An elite squad of “hyper-confrontational and unprofessional” correction officers is exacerbating staff-on-inmate violence, according to a new report from the federal monitor tasked with investigating New York City jails. The Emergency Services Unit is charged with responding to riots, fires, escapes, and other crisis situations. But, according to the court-appointed watchdog, corrections staff are too frequently calling on the unit to respond to fights and to conduct searches which quickly get out of hand.
“They almost always fail to first attempt de-escalation when they arrive on the scene and appear to presume force will be required no matter the circumstance,” the report noted. “When force is employed, [Emergency Services Unit] Staff often utilize improper head-strikes, violent body slams and takedowns, violent wall slams, painful and unsafe escort holds, unnecessary use of OC spray, and prohibited holds.”
The findings echo what jail reform advocates have noticed on the ground.
“Our office is getting increasingly more and more reports from people who are in the jails about the very violent, hyper confrontational presence of the ESU in their housing units,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners' Rights Project. “More and more people have been reporting abuse of strip searches and SWAT team tactics by ESU in the ordinary course of the day.”
In its report, the federal monitor, known as the Nunez monitoring team, recommended corrections authorities do a better job of screening candidates for the vaunted unit. “A concerning number of ESU Staff have exhibited problematic behavior that should have either prevented their appointment to ESU in the first place,” the report noted.
The watchdog also urged authorities to remove ESU team members who had substantiated findings of excessive force.
A joint Gothamist/WNYC and The City investigation, relying on limited disciplinary data, identified several correction officers across the city’s jail units who faced light discipline despite repeat misconduct charges.
Werlwas, the Legal Aid attorney, goes one step further, arguing that the Department of Correction should disband the unit because of its hyper-aggressive ethos. “By introducing paramilitary gear, weaponry and this ethos of combat, they ratchet up any ordinary tensions that officers ordinarily could dispel by talking to people or using ordinary relationship management,” she said.
In an email, Department of Correction officials did not respond to questions about the monitor’s criticism of the Emergency Services Unit, but pointed to several staff achievements noted in the report including accelerated investigations of staff use of force incidents and a decrease in injuries stemming from such encounters.
“During this monitoring period, we continued to face the challenges presented by this unprecedented pandemic,” said Commissioner Cynthia Brann. “We appreciate the monitor for acknowledging our ability to adapt in many areas and for noting the ‘major accomplishment’ of our Investigations Division in investigating and reviewing all Use of Force incidents in near real-time—an agency milestone.”
The Nunez monitor’s report is the latest in a series of investigations conducted by Steve Martin, a federal overseer appointed in 2015 to probe city jails following a class action lawsuit brought by a group of detainees alleging excessive force and other abuses by staff.
As in previous reports, the federal monitor criticized corrections authorities for failing to rein in staff violence. While the jail population has dropped because of bail reform and other decarceration initiatives, the staff use of force rate remains relatively high.
In 2020, the average use of force rate was 183% higher than the average rate in 2016, the monitor noted. More than half of those 1,623 force incidents, the report continued, had “either procedural errors or involved avoidable and/or problematic force.”
The oversight group blamed poor supervision, bad operational practices, and corrections officers’ “hyper-confrontational” demeanor for the entrenched patterns of unnecessary force.
Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the use of force statistics during his Wednesday press briefing, saying “When I hear a number like that, it’s unacceptable, it means we’ve got a lot better to do. But I’ll note that last number”—the 1623 incidents in 2020—”included the COVID year, when everything became hard to do… staffing was down because people were sick.”
He also faulted Rikers itself, saying the almost 90-year-old jail “is inhibiting reform and change and humanity” and that the city needs to “get off Rikers” and “go to humane borough-based jails.”
“I am convinced we can turn this situation around. We’ve definitely got a lot more to go,” he said.
On Tuesday, hours before the critical report came out, the Daily News broke the news that DOC Cynthia Brann is stepping down at the end of this month.