Jails Head’s Message On Force Puts Unions In ‘Show Us’ Mode


Leaders of two Corrections unions took issue last week with a memo from Commissioner Joseph Ponte reminding officers that they may use force against inmates bearing weapons.

The memo, dated Jan. 28, said, “In recent weeks staff have encountered inmates in possession of weapons who were attempting to or who have caused injury to another inmate and were refusing orders to cease their actions and drop the weapon. All staff are reminded that force may be used against an inmate...”

Justifiable Conditions


The memo lists eight conditions under which COs may use force, including “to defend oneself or another from a physical attack or from an imminent physical attack; to prevent the commission of crimes, escapes, throwing or an attempt to throw blood, seminal fluid, urine or feces, or to quell an inmate disturbance; [and] to effect an arrest when resistance is encountered.”

Other circumstances include preventing “serious damage to property,” stopping inmates from hurting themselves or, “as a last resort, when an inmate in restraints is still dangerous to himself or others,” according to the memo.

Use of force against inmates brandishing or using weapons “includes any necessary or immediate escalation from chemical agents to physical force, batons to Tasers, or any other tool that is readily available…”

‘Must Be Proportionate’

Officers are reminded that “the force used must be proportionate to threat posed,” and that it must cease when the threat is over or the inmate has been immobilized.

COBA commented that the memo raised more questions than it answered.

“After three years of implementing ill-advised reform measures that have done absolutely nothing to quell the jail-violence epidemic, the Commissioner sends out a knee-jerk teletype that contradicted his previous positions on the use of force,” the union’s president, Elias Hu­sam­udeen, said in a statement.

“The bottom line is that when it comes to our officers defending themselves from vicious inmate assaults, we need a clear and coherent policy, not an ad hoc reminder that raises more questions than it answers and causes further confusion.”

‘Not That Cut-and-Dried’

Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association, said the memo sent a mixed message. “What they have written is not always honored,” he said in an interview. “It would be nice if it were that cut-and-dried, but it’s not.”

He continued, “Staff are afraid to use force against an inmate for multiple reasons. They’re afraid of being disciplined or indicted. They’re gun-shy, and you really can’t blame them.

“If an inmate’s not on your back or your partner’s back, call a supervisor [to oversee any use of force]. Your last resort should be using force because you don’t know what the Monday morning quarterbacks are going to do.”

Even in cases in which the use of force is found to be justified, he said, jail bosses review the videotape looking for procedural violations.

Mr. Ferraiuolo said he appreciates Mr. Ponte’s memo, but “unfortunately he’s not the judge and jury.”

Celestino Monclova, a former CO who ran in 2012 for the presidency of COBA, said in an email, “After observing hundreds of correctional staffers viciously condemned for proactively doing their job, it should be painfully obvious to everyone who dons a uniform that the only justifiable use of force today is the complete avoidance of one.”

Alludes to Court Woes

At least 11 officers were convicted of felonies in state and Federal courts last year in assaults on inmates.


The Department of Correction declined to explain the timing of the memo.

“The message was meant to ensure that staff understand that they are authorized to use the force necessary for safely ending an incident when responding to situations in which an inmate is armed,” said Peter Thorne, a spokesman for Mr. Ponte. “We sent it out of an abundance of caution and commitment to safety.”

Some of the language of Mr. Ponte’s memo echoes that of a 2015 consent judgment in Mark Nunez et al. v. City of New York, a Federal class action that alleged “unnecessary and excessive force inflicted upon inmates” by staff members. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office prepared a report comparing violence in adolescent units at Rikers Island to “Lord of the Flies,” joined in the suit before it was settled.

Use-of-Force Mandate

The judgment required the city to come up with a new use-of-force policy “that sets forth the following general principles: ‘(i) the force used shall always be the minimum amount necessary, and must be proportional to the resistance or threat encountered; (ii) the use of excessive and unnecessary force is expressly prohibited; (iii) [DOC] has a zero-tolerance policy for excessive and unnecessary force; and (iv) the best and safest way to manage potential use-of-force situations is to prevent or resolve them without physical force.’”

The policy needed “an explicit requirement stating that ‘all force shall cease when control of the inmate has been established,’ the judgment said.

Last year DOC completed its phase-out of solitary confinement for inmates 21 or younger, an action that puts New York at the forefront of jail systems but that correction officers feel makes it harder to control violent inmates.

Mixed Mayoral Message

Those who previously would have gone into solitary to spend 23 hours a day locked up are assigned to special housing units where they spend 17 hours a day in their cells and the rest in general-purpose areas ming­ling with other inmates and receiving counseling or educational programs.

The de Blasio administration claims that jail violence is down, but sought repeated extensions of the deadline for ending solitary for 19-to-21-year-olds because of disruptions that followed moving inmates out of confinement.