COBA Sues for Help In Controlling Terrible Two

Mark Toor | The Chief Leader

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association and its president, Norman Sea­brook, filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against the city last week charging that it was violating state law by failing to provide COBA members with a safe place to work.

The lawsuit, filed May 11 in Bronx Supreme Court, names two serially-violent inmates who have been responsible for dozens of assaults on officers since 2010.

Want Full-Time ESU Watch

It seeks a court order requiring that these inmates be guarded full-time by officers from the Department of Correction’s Emergency Service Unit, who are given special training and equipment, including mittens to control the hands of obstreperous prisoners and other enhanced restraints such as shackles, body armor, and masks to protect themselves from spit.

“The inadequacy of the training, equipment, engineering controls, administrative controls, staffing and policies employed by the DOC with these inmates [and others like them] are what makes this litigation necessary to save Correction Officers from further injury, which is imminent,” the suit says.

One of the inmates, Steven Sidbury, who is facing murder, arson and weapons charges, “struck out while being transferred to a hospital prison ward and almost took hold of a Correction Officer’s service weapon” in 2014, the suit said. “He informed Correction Officers that he would have ‘spattered their brains all over the hospital walls,' because he has nothing else to lose.”

Mr. Sidbury is a member of the Bloods gang and like 40 percent of Rikers Island’s inmates “may suffer from what some may consider mental illness,” according to the suit.

‘One-Man Wrecking Crew’

“On multiple occasions in January and July 2010, September, October and November 2014, January, February, March, April, June, September and December 2015, and January, February, March and April 2016 [Mr. Sidbury] assaulted several Correction Officers,” the suit said.

“How is it possible that knowing full well the propensities of this one individual (and those like him, who are repeat predicate offenders) that the DOC has not put in place controls to curb a one-man wrecking crew?”

The second inmate, Malik Ellis, also a member of the Bloods who is awaiting trial on robbery and assault char­ges, has assaulted officers in the same manner and frequency as Mr. Sidbury, the suit said. “So, too, is history of assaulting and beating Correction Officers with or without weapons, throwing dangerous bodily fluids at Correction Officers,” it continued.

Marc Steier, the union’s director of legal affairs, said the Department of Correction hasn’t sufficiently addressed the problem of the small fraction of inmates who are violent.

No Alternative to Solitary

He noted that Rikers has cut back on the use of solitary confinement, removing a tool officers used to control such inmates, but had not offered alternative strategies. “The approach we’re taking,” he said, “is, ‘Here’s a population you’re not addressing.’ These are not the typical I-can’t-afford-bail inmates.”

The suit was filed as Mr. Seabrook runs for a sixth term as COBA president, opposed by William Valentin, who was corresponding secretary until he was expelled from the board last year after a conflict with Mr. Seabrook. Nominations were to be made at the union membership meeting May 18 and votes will be counted at the June 15 meeting.

Asked whether the filing of the suit was timed for election season, Mr. Steier and another attorney for COBA, Liam Castro of the firm of Koehler & Isaacs, said in a conference call that this was absolutely not the case.

“It’s happenstance that this happened in an election year,” Mr. Castro said. He said the union had been looking at such an approach for years.

Mr. Valentin said he had been suggesting a similar lawsuit for years “and the answer was always no.” He said he found it suspicious that Mr. Seabrook filed the suit right before the union election.

Mr. Castro referred to a case last year of a 290-pound inmate accused of attempting to rape a female officer. An inmate broke the Plexiglass window of a control module to rescue her. He praised the rescue but said the Plexiglass should not have been vulnerable.

Mr. Steier also said some cells did not have openings in the door through which inmates can extend their arms to be handcuffed before the door is opened, which could allow an unrestrained violent inmate to burst out and attack an officer.

Asked to respond, Mayor de Blasio’s Deputy Press Secretary, Monica Klein, e-mail­ed, “Under Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte, the Department of Correction has reformed the training curriculum to effectively train officers to deal constructively and safely with diverse populations, invested nearly $200 million in officer safety, and reduced serious assaults on staff by 41 percent this year.”

Upgraded Training

Training for new officers has been increased from 16 weeks to 18 weeks and three days so that courses can be added in mental-health techniques, listening skills, crisis intervention and management and the new, stricter policy governing officers’ use of force on inmates.

The city has spent nearly $200 million on training, technology, repairs, equipment and additional officers in hope of creating a safer environment at Rikers, including more surveillance cameras, riot gear and other safety equipment, revisions to the inmate-classification system and more-secure transportation to take prisoners to courthouses.

COBA’s lawyers question­ed figures showing a decline in assaults on staff, which Commissioner Ponte presented at a City Council hearing earlier in the week.

“COs are being told not to write up uses of force, and to avoid uses of force,” Mr. Steier said.

Want Labor Dept. Involved

The suit seeks a stronger role for the state Department of Labor, which is tasked with enforcing the Workplace Violence Prevention Law. That law requires public employers and unions to collaborate on identifying and addressing factors that lead to verbal or physical abuse,

Employees of the city Department of Juvenile Justice filed a similar suit against the city over assaults by residents of juvenile-detention facilities. A 2012 Appellate Division ruling found that the law can indeed be applied to such cases.