Top Uniformed Rikers Officer Steps Down Early

By: 
MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ | NY TIMES

The highest-ranking uniformed officer overseeing Rikers Island abruptly stepped down on Friday, the latest sign of turmoil at the city jail agency.

The move comes just weeks before the correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, plans to leave and will mean that during the summer months, when violence at the jails typically peaks, two top officials at the department will still be settling into their new jobs.

It is not clear why the official, Martin J. Murphy, a 30-year-veteran of the Correction Department, decided to step down as chief of department. He told colleagues last month that he planned to resign but would stay through the summer to help guide the transition to a new commissioner. The department offered no explanation, and Mr. Murphy could not be reached for comment.

“It was his decision to determine the exact date, and he chose to retire today,” said Peter Thorne, a department spokesman.

But two people close to Mr. Murphy, who requested anonymity to speak openly about internal department matters, said Mr. Ponte had asked that he step down, a request that took the chief by surprise.

“They should not be playing games with the transition when Chief Murphy said he would stay until September,” said Mark Cranston, a longtime colleague of Mr. Murphy’s at Rikers who is now warden of the Middlesex County Department of Correction in New Jersey. “Yet again, the men and women that work in the jails are left wondering who is in charge and what is the mission.”

Mr. Ponte, who is 70, announced last month that he would resign after a series of scandals, including the misuse of city-issued vehicles by the commissioner and his aides and a campaign of spying on city investigators by the department’s internal affairs division.

The department said Friday that Mr. Murphy would be replaced by Hazel Jennings, who has been with the department since 1987 and is currently the bureau chief of facility operations.

City Hall has yet to decide on Mr. Ponte’s replacement, saying only that many candidates were being interviewed for the job, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has called the toughest in city government.

Despite expensive efforts by the city to make reforms, Rikers remains in disarray. Officers describe walking the cellblocks fearful that they could be spat on, splashed with urine or stabbed. Inmates are afraid of guards. On Thursday, a correction officer who was assigned to the women’s jail at Rikers pleaded guilty to sexually abusing an inmate there in 2015.