By Kevin Deutsch
The city’s Correction Department is struggling to manage a massive backlog of disciplinary cases, resulting in the statute of limitations expiring in about 1,500 use of force investigations, according to a new federal monitor report.
New York’s civil service law says no disciplinary proceeding can begin more than 18 months after an alleged instance of employee misconduct. That means correction officers and other department employees can’t be fired, or even disciplined, unless departmental charges are brought before the cutoff.
The lone exception is when an incident of misconduct is prosecuted as a crime.
“The fact that this volume of investigations is pending beyond the SOL is plainly unacceptable,” Steve Martin, the court-appointed federal monitor tasked with overseeing reforms in the city correction system, wrote in a report issued Thursday.
“The sheer volume of UOF incidents that require investigation is daunting and overwhelming…investigators simply have more work than can reasonably be completed in a timely manner,” Martin wrote.
Martin and his team, appointed in 2015 as part of a settlement won by abused city jail inmates, is tasked with reforming the city’s Correction Department, long plagued by systemic violence and abuse.
There are fewer inmates in city jails than there were in 2016, Martin wrote, yet the “use of force” rate for the second half of 2018 was 79% higher than the same period two years earlier.
Thursday’s report is Marin’s seventh over the past four years.
While the revelations about the backlog make up a small portion of the 256-page report, Martin’s findings suggest there is often little accountability for correction employees who violate departmental use of force rules.
Internal reports about use of force incidents, for instance, are often at odds with the available evidence, Martin found.
“The Monitoring Team often finds the quality of the Staff reports to be lacking, including the use of vague and boilerplate language, language inconsistent with video evidence, or the inclusion of false information,” the report states.
“While charges were occasionally brought for use of force reporting-related violations (including collusion) during this Monitoring Period, the frequency of such charges is not compatible with what the Monitoring Team would expect,” Martin wrote.
The report said the number of the cases “with expired SOLs creates significant collateral consequences.”
“The Department is not only precluded from bringing charges if misconduct is later identified, but it also diverts limited staff resources from more current cases.”
Martin said his team “has strongly recommended” that Correction Department investigators “expedite the closure of cases that have passed the SOL in order to clear the docket and ensure that future cases do not suffer the same fate.”
Use of force incidents that appear to rise to the level of crimes continue to be referred to the city’s Department of Investigation, the report said.
Rikers Island, which city officials have promised to close and replace with smaller, community-based jails, is part of the Bronx. The borough is also home to Horizon Juvenile Center, which houses accused offenders under 18.
Martin wrote that violence against inmates in city-run facilities “is occurring too frequently and is often precipitated by staff’s behavior,” but his report also highlighted positive developments in the correction system.
“The current [Department of Correction] leadership has embraced the reform effort and is moving the system in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than we collectively desire.”