Ducking Blame for Rikers

By: 
The Chief Leader

A lawsuit brought by the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association seeking to block enforcement of Mayor de Blasio's vaccine mandate against its members is a reminder that efforts by him and Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi to blame the holdout officers for the personnel shortage that led to a recent order putting COs on regular 12-hour shifts are an exercise in spin control.
 
The staff shortage is not solely—or even primarily—the fault of defiant colleagues who refused to be inoculated.
 
 
The lawsuit offers one stunning statistic: over the past 20 months, 1,600 officers have either retired or resigned their jobs, yet only 150 new COs have been hired—and they are currently in training and therefore unable to provide reinforcements in the jails.
 
Turnover among officers has always been high—before the pandemic and before conditions at Rikers Island deteriorated to such a degree that outside watchdogs have finally stopped blaming the uniformed staff and turned a critical eye towards top Correction Department management and the current city administration.
 
And so the Mayor's "perfect-storm" mantra to blame any problems his administration is having in the criminal-justice area on the pandemic and its fallout doesn't pass the smell test when it comes to the failure to replace the great majority of officers lost to attrition. It's just a matter of how cynical you choose to be about the reasons for what can only be viewed as a major management failure.
 
Was the lack of hiring merely the result of budget priorities that for Mr. de Blasio have often been geared to fixing the problems that attract the most attention from the media and the public? There is not a natural constituency among city residents for the jail system, as there is for education or police or fire protection, and except when sensational cases involving inmate deaths, alleged brutality or riots place the department under a spotlight, it is easy for a Mayor to neglect problems that haven't bubbled to the surface.
 
If that were the only reason the Mayor and the City Council have allocated so little money for hiring over the past three years, it would be deplorable. But both Mr. de Blasio and the Council's leadership have developed a vested interest in shutting down Rikers and replacing it with four borough-based jails, and union leaders have questioned whether those entities concluded that the worse things get on Rikers, the stronger public sentiment will grow for shutting it down and moving forward even as potential problems with the change have become apparent.
 
That would amount to malign neglect, and would be particularly unforgivable.
 
 
The union's lawsuit argues that the personnel shortage grew worse when hundreds of officers were placed on what amounts to suspension by another name for refusing to be vaccinated. The problem will become more acute, it noted, if the 700 or so COBA members who have continued working while seeking exemptions from the vaccine mandate for medical or religious reasons have their applications denied and can be placed on leave without pay, or simply decide to resign rather than getting the shots. It is asking a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice to permanently block enforcement, saying the city had a viable alternative when it gave employees the option of submitting to weekly testing if they didn't want to be vaccinated.
 
But practically speaking, that train has left the station from the city's standpoint. Unless compelled to do so by a court order, it couldn't have exempted COs from the mandate while insisting that other recalcitrant employees—most of them also uniformed workers—had to comply.
 
And so a tense standoff exists. The Mayor has noted that when the overwhelming number of employees who had to make a choice a month sooner than Correction Officers were confronted with loss of their paychecks for a month or more, they relented and got the shots.
 
There is one key difference here, though: where, for example, firefighters, for all their kitchen-table griping, generally like their jobs—and so they often stick around long after they've qualified for full pensions—that has usually not been the case among Correction Officers, and particularly not at this point in time.
 
And it doesn't help that the 85 percent of COs who have done the right thing by getting vaccinated are being praised by Mr. Schiraldi and the Mayor for being conscientious but are simultaneously being figuratively slapped by them with longer tours that over a prolonged period of time figure to have negative effects both physically and mentally.
 
They are not the ones responsible for a staffing crisis that the administration allowed to take root, but they are essentially being told that they have to eat that bad decision—one of many the Mayor and his three Correction Commissioners have made over the past eight years. 
 
Small wonder that their union has concluded that the only way to get relief from the Mayor's idea of justice is to ask a judge to take a look at the hypocritical game that top city officials are running.