Report: NYC jails see record high rate of force used by staffers during COVID-19

Use of force incidents soared to 719 in March, according to data presented in the 296-page report

By Chelsia Rose Marcius
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The number of instances in which city correction officers used force against inmates — including to break up fights — hit a near five-year high this spring as COVID-19 tore through the jails, a new federal report says.

Use of force incidents soared to 719 in March, according to Correction Department data presented in the 296-page report.

But the numbers dropped dramatically — to 385 incidents in April, 389 in May and 381 in June — as the city jail population plummeted to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In those three months, the population fell from 5,625 at the start of the year to 3,949 in June — a 74-year low — and jails saw the most rapid decrease in the total number of force incidents per month since November 2015, the report says, as well as fewer injuries as a result of these incidents.

Still, the drop “did little to change [jail] conditions,” wrote independent monitor Steven J. Martin in his team’s 10th oversight report of the agency, noting “the use of force rate remains unacceptably high.”

“Physical force by staff in a correctional setting is at times necessary to maintain order and safety and the mere fact that physical force was used does not mean that staff acted inappropriately. In fact, there are times in which staff must use force,” Martin wrote.

“[But] too often, staff select approaches which escalate and exacerbate the problem … rather than solve it, which increases both the likelihood that force will be used and the potential for harm,” he added.

The report — a result of the city’s settlement in a class-action lawsuit over use of force in the jails — said those approaches include an over reliance on pepper spray and “probe teams,” which are groups of officers called in to forcefully quell disputes.

Of the total use of force incidents between January and June, 28% were attributed to inmate fights, the report says. Another 27% occurred because a person in custody refused an order, 13% were due to an assault on a staffer, and 16% involved someone resisting restraint or escort.

The report also covered the agency’s progress on reducing the backlog of investigations into such incidents, with over 7,000 investigations closed in the last six months — something Correction Department Commissioner Cynthia Brann called “a major milestone” for the agency.

“After years of consistent effort, including a complete overhaul of the investigations process that was implemented during the pandemic, we have been rated in compliance with our obligation to conduct timely use of force investigations,” Brann said.

“The monitor acknowledged the successful closure of over 80 percent of backlogged investigations over the same period. We remain determined that each alleged use of force is investigated in a timely and effective manner as a key part of our ongoing commitment to creating safer and more humane facilities.”


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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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