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Pepper spray use at Rikers Island, NYC jails violates city DOC rules, report finds

Of the 50 incidents studied, pepper spray was used 24 times against mentally ill detainees, even though policy first requires consultation with mental health staff, the report said

New York Department of Corrections

James Keivom

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The Correction Department uses pepper spray disproportionately on mentally ill detainees when they are passively not following orders, are arguing or trying to hang themselves, a Board of Correction report released Wednesday found.

The report analyzed reports of 50 pepper spray incidents in October 2023 in city lockups and found a similarly disproportionate use rate involving male detainees aged 18 to 21.

The report also found that staff routinely failed to follow Correction Department policies and procedures on pepper spray.

Of the 50 incidents studied, pepper spray was used 24 times against mentally ill detainees, even though policy first requires consultation with mental health staff, the report said.

The 50 incidents studied in the report were just 15% of the 339 uses of chemical agents that month at Rikers Island and other city jails, the report says. Most but not all city detainees are housed on Rikers Island.

“This report covers only one month of unnecessary, inappropriate and dangerous overuse of chemical agents in the jails,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a Board of Correction member. “The department’s failure to prevent this dangerous practice contributes substantially to the violence in the jails. It must end.”

Other findings in the report included:

• Correction staff made false statements justifying the use of pepper spray in 28 of the 50 incidents, such as claiming falsely a detainee was “advancing” on them when video showed they were not.

• During follow-up investigations of 40 of the incidents, probers chose not to interview the person who was sprayed.

• Staff used the spray eight times on detainees trying to hang themselves even though policy requires officers to “immediately remove or cut a ligature” first.

Correction spokeswoman Annais Morales said the agency has agreed to provide additional training for staff on use of pepper spray, which is also known as OC spray after the name of its main ingredient, oleoresin capsicum.

“OC spray is a critical, non-lethal tool for correction officers to ensure the safety of fellow uniformed and civilian staff, as well as other persons in custody,” she said.

In its written response to the report, the department agreed that in some cases, use of pepper spray was unnecessary and more effort could have been put into de-escalating the situations in which it was used.

“The incarcerated individual in several of the cases was housed in a mental observation unit, and their conduct was erratic,” the agency said. “That may account for the officers’ frustration and concern, but does not justify using OC spray.”

In 11 incidents, the report said, officers resorted directly to pepper spray without making verbal warnings first, another violation of policy.

In five incidents, officers used MK-9, a much more powerful variant of pepper spray, on lone detainees, while it is only supposed to be used on crowds.

Correction officers used pepper spray at point blank range in 16 incidents. Close quarters use is also barred by policy.

Detainees were often passively arguing for things like access to mental health or medical care, medication before they were sprayed, the report said.

Correction captains and above are supposed to get re-trained annually on pepper spray use, but in 2023 only 5% had received the training that year, the report said.

The report found that the use of pepper spray surged following the start of the pandemic, and continued as the pandemic subsided. Pepper spray use in 2023 was double its use in 2018, the report found.

In July 2018, pepper spray was used at a rate of 19 incidents per 1,000 detainees with the number increasing to a height of 68 incidents per 1,000 detainees in September 2022 before declining most recently to 55 incidents per 1,000 detainees in September 2023, the report shows.

During the first 10 months of 2023, the department averaged 297 uses of pepper spray a month. More than half of all uses of force in the period involved pepper spray, compared to 37% in 2019.

In compiling the report, the board relied on access to security video which was stripped from the oversight body in early 2023 by then-Correction Commissioner Louis Molina. The board sued and won renewed access on Oct. 3.

The board’s conclusions mirror an April 2017 report by the federal monitor established to track violence and staff use of force in the jails which also reported that staff often misuse pepper spray on detainees who won’t follow orders, use it as retaliation, or without first trying to talk with the detainee to defuse a situation.

The board recommended a series of training and policy improvements in the report.

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