New York City has utterly failed to reduce the rate of “unnecessary and excessive use of force” against people who are locked up in city jails and youth detention, according to a court-appointed monitor’s latest six-month report to a federal judge.
In fact, in March, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the city and forced swift and unprecedented changes in jail operations to protect the health of inmates and staff alike, the use of force rate against incarcerated people hit its highest level since the consent order went into effect in November 2015.
While the rate of violence remains high, the total number of use-of-force incidents has been declining rapidly since the consent judgment kicked in, largely because the incarcerated population has declined 60% to just under 4,000 since the coronavirus pandemic.
Court monitor Steve J. Martin credited the Department of Correction and the Administration for Children’s Services with working cooperatively with his team and the plaintiffs to create a framework for improvement. But overall, the report found “the department has not yet demonstrated progress in reducing the frequency of unnecessary and excessive force.”
The report, covering the first six months of 2020, found that corrections officials continue to rely too much on their “hyper-confrontational” probe teams. These squads, for example, tend to use painful holds and pepper spray to control inmates on occasions calling for de-escalation techniques instead.
Making matters worse, the report found that the uniformed leadership often failed to hold line staff accountable for their misconduct and that incident investigations are not always swiftly conducted and completed. It did not find any attempt by staff or management to conceal use of force incidents, water down reports or retaliate against complainants.
Regarding the population of detainees age 16 and 17, Martin’s report said the team was not confident that the use of force by Children’s Services workers at the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx was where it should be.
“Once normal operations resume,” the report states, “the culture of disorder” at Horizon “must be transformed by incentivizing positive behavior, responding appropriately to negative behavior, and ensuring that staff develop constructive relationships with youth and are properly equipped with the knowledge, skills, and support needed to create a safe facility.”
Finally, the report found, inmate-to-inmate fights are more common among 18-year-olds than among any other age group including adults. The staff also uses force with this age group at a greater rate than against any other.
Despite the report’s grim bottom-line conclusions, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann called the latest report a “major milestone.”
“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,” she said in a statement to The City, a local news organization. The report noted that the correction department made major headway on its investigation backlog, closing more than 80% of them during the first half of the year.