As prepared for delivery
Statement before the
New York City Council
Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services
Elizabeth Crowley, Chairperson
By Heidi Grossman, Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters
NYC Department of Correction
November 14, 2016
Good morning, Chair Crowley and members of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services committee. I am Heidi Grossman, the Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters for the New York City Department of Correction.
The purpose of today’s hearing is to examine the implementation of the Nunez settlement. The Nunez Consent Judgment was approved by the Court just over a year ago, with an Effective Date of November 1, 2015. Since the judgment went into effect, the independent monitor has issued two reports detailing the significant progress the Department has made in implementing the Consent Judgment, and assessing the Department’s level of compliance. Each of these reports, which were released on May 31, 2016 and on October 31, 2016, is publicly available. We are pleased to report that the Department has achieved in compliance ratings of the provisions evaluated by the Monitor. While we have a long way to go, we cannot emphasize enough how proud we are of our accomplishments so far.
To start, it is important to clarify what Nunez is. Nunez is not just about force. It is about all the systems within the Department that impact on force. The primary goals of the Consent Judgment are to reduce unnecessary or excessive force by staff against inmates and to reduce inmate violence. Provisions of the Consent Judgment address use of force and inmate violence both directly and indirectly, and cover a range of areas from inmate housing plans and classification through use of force policy, training, and investigations.
As you are all aware, since Commissioner Ponte came to the Department in 2014, the agency has been undergoing a significant transformation. The Consent Judgment went into effect a year and a half into Commissioner Ponte’s tenure, so it is impossible to discuss the Consent Judgment requirements without discussing the reform efforts that were already underway.
The Commissioner began his tenure by conducting a thorough assessment of the Department’s needs, including a comprehensive survey of staff. This assessment informed the 14-Point Anti-Violence Reform Agenda (or 14-Point Plan), which has been discussed at a number of previous hearings. The 14-Point Plan focuses on reducing violence, both directly and through culture change. The initiative includes:
Directly reducing violence and force by
Addressing underlying causes of violence by
Supporting staff by
These reform efforts are aligned with and reflected throughout the text of the Nunez Consent Judgment, which directly addresses fourteen specific areas: use of force policy, use of force reporting and tracking, use of force investigations, anonymous reporting system, risk management, safety and supervision of inmates under the age of nineteen, housing plan for inmates under the age of eighteen, staff discipline and accountability, staff recruitment and selection, screening and assignment of staff, training, arrests of inmates, and inmate discipline, and video surveillance.
In many instances, the Department’s new policies and programs were incorporated into the Consent Judgment itself. We agreed to this because the policies and programs represent sound correctional practice. Both the 14-Point Plan and the Consent Judgment guide the Department’s efforts at reforming culture, restoring trust and confidence in the Department, and improving safety for both staff and inmates. In guiding the Department through its reform efforts, we aspire to be a leader in this field like we once were. I will now highlight a few of these areas of focus now.
Use of Force
A key element of the reform agenda was achieved with the development of the revised Use of Force Policy, which is also the overarching goal of the Nunez consent judgment. The Department has always had a Use of Force directive governing when officers are permitted to use force and how use of force incidents should be documented. The Department’s goal is always to reduce violence and ensure staff and inmate safety; the overarching principles of the old policy remain in effect. The revised policy provides additional guidance to officers when confronted with a situation where force may be necessary. This revised policy will support appropriate use of force and also support the objective to resolve situations without physical force whenever possible.
Implementing the new Use of Force Policy requires the Department to train staff on the differences between the new and old policies, and to provide them with the additional physical skills they need in order to implement the new concepts. These physical skills will enable officers to restrain violent inmates while at the same time minimizing injuries to themselves, the inmates, and any bystanders.
Given the importance of properly implementing the new Use of Force Policy, the Department and the Monitor agreed that the Consent Judgment’s goals would best be accomplished by fully training staff on the policy and on appropriate defensive tactics before the new policy takes effect. The same holds true regarding the revisions to the disciplinary guidelines identified in the Consent Judgment. These should go into effect after all staff receive their training. Staff are being trained now. The new policy is scheduled to go into effect on September 27, 2017, with the disciplinary guidelines following a month later on October 27, 2017.
Even before the Consent Judgment went into effect, the Department was committed to reducing uses of force within our facilities in order to create a safer environment for both staff and inmates. The policy has two goals: first, to reduce the frequency of use of force and second, to ensure that when force is required, staff use the least injurious, most effective methods possible to address the situation. Since the beginning of this administration, we have seen positive improvement across the levels of force and violence. For the first time since 2011, overall uses of force and overall assaults on staff are now trending downward. Most importantly, uses of force resulting in serious injuries are down 37% from 2015, assaults on staff overall are down 16%, and assaults on staff resulting in serious injuries are down 34%. These significant decreases have been achieved while reducing the use of punitive segregation by 85%.
Use of force must be reported and tracked and mechanisms to do so are part of the Consent Judgment. The Department is committed to accurately tracking use of force and other reportable incidents. Officers have always been required to document each use of force incident they are involved in or witness. This has not changed under the new policy. The Department takes seriously any potentially unreported use of force incident, and fully investigates such allegations when they are brought to our attention. Further, we have made reporting misconduct, including excessive use of force, or corruption in our facilities easier, by creating the Anonymous Reporting System to allow staff to anonymously report use of force policy violations to the Investigations Division.
Though the new use of force policy is not yet in effect, we have implemented a number of measures already, such as creating interim tracking systems, expanding the Investigations Division, and increasing the scope of Investigations Division incident reviews. Consistent with the 14 Point Anti-Violence Reform Agenda and the Consent Judgment, the Department is redefining the Investigations Division by, among other things, increasing the speed of information gathering in order to reduce the backlog of open investigations and ensure professional integrity across the agency.
The Department is committed to developing procedures to better understand and address the type of force officers use. To that end, the Department has developed several new processes for collecting, understanding, and evaluating the use of force which go beyond the specific requirements of the Consent Judgment and demonstrate our commitment to reform. “Risk Management” is not just about focusing on use of force, but on the myriad internal and external factors that can impact the performance of the Department’s staff. This includes, but is not limited to, personal and work-related stress, overtime, and the amount of time spent working with our most challenging inmate populations. A comprehensive risk management approach must consider all of these factors, and the myriad potential solutions, in order to support the Department’s efforts to bring about a culture of safety.
Inmates Under the Age of Nineteen
One of the most important changes that the Commissioner implemented when coming to the Department was recognizing that different populations need to be managed differently. Effective management strategies must address populations’ needs, especially young inmates.
Previously, the Department managed the different populations in a basically uniform manner, regardless of age or other need. We have moved away from this one-size-fits-all approach and now tailor our management strategy for various inmate populations. By managing inmates appropriate to their needs, we create a safer environment for everyone.
The adolescent population, sixteen and seventeen year olds, was one of the first populations identified by the Commissioner as needing a new approach. Soon after coming to the Department, he sent staff around the country to learn best practices from adult and juvenile systems and implement them here. Within eight months of the Commissioner’s tenure, housing area sizes were reduced from thirty-three to fifteen, staffing was increased to one officer for every fifteen inmates, programming was expanded, and punitive segregation was eliminated and replaced with therapeutic alternatives. Again, the Department agreed to incorporate many of the Department’s adolescent reforms into the Nunez Consent Judgment, including the staffing ratios, maximum housing area sizes, and the elimination of punitive segregation—because they represent good correctional practice.
As it does with adolescents, the Nunez Consent Judgment also directly addresses the management of eighteen year olds, but the Department has gone well beyond these requirements. The Department has created a new housing cohort of Young Adults – those aged eighteen through twenty-one. The Department is voluntarily extending the standards codified by the Nunez Consent Judgment for eighteen year olds to the nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one year olds.
Expanded Recruiting & Training
Staff are the most important component of the Department’s success. Since the beginning of Commissioner Ponte’s tenure, the Department has developed a recruitment, hiring, and staff selection plan to attract the most qualified candidates, ensuring a steady pipeline of top-quality recruits who can be trained and mentored into quality officers.
The Department is hiring record numbers of recruits, with each recent recruit class larger than the next. The Department graduated 592 recruits in December 2015, 618 in May 2016, and 711 in November 2016. A record 1,200 recruits will enter the Academy next month. At the same time, we are also providing more training to current staff, to give them the best tools possible to do their jobs. From August 2014 through the present, nearly 3,000 correction officers, or about one third of our current officer corps, completed one or more new trainings involving de-escalation techniques. The Department has provided specialized training for staff working with special populations such as the mentally ill and adolescents, and is training officers in state of the art defensive tactics.
Several of the new recruit and in-service training curricula being given are incorporated into the Nunez Consent Judgment, including:
To ensure that all staff get the best training possible, the Department requires more hours of training than the Consent Judgment requires, and also requires additional training, such as PREA and Crisis Intervention Training, that is not required by Nunez.
Staff Recruitment, Selection, Screening, and Assignment
Since the beginning of Commissioner Ponte’s tenure, we have developed a recruitment, hiring, and staff selection plan to attract the most qualified candidates to the Department. We are ensuring a steady pipeline of top-quality recruits who can be trained and mentored into quality officers. For example, we have raised our hiring standards to match those of other law enforcement agencies, like the NYPD.
To ensure that everyone has equal opportunity for promotions and special assignments, the Department is committed to implementing a screening process that applies equally to all staff, and that makes performance standards clear and fair. The new screening process will also consider whether staff has the training necessary for assignment to certain specialized units. This ensures both staff and inmate safety, by making sure that officers are equipped to deal with the unique needs and challenges associated with some of our most difficult inmate populations.
Another big focus of the 14 Point Anti-Violence Reform Agenda has been expanding camera coverage throughout the jails. As has been reported during previous hearings, we are working diligently toward that goal and plan to achieve complete camera coverage well before the Consent Judgment’s deadline of February 2018, because camera installation has been a priority since before the Consent Judgment was implemented.
The additional video surveillance will help make our facilities safer for everyone. Further, the increased video surveillance is already making a difference for the Department’s Investigations Division; this year approximately 69% of use of force incidents were captured in whole or in part on video, meaning ID has access to clear, objective evidence of incidents under investigation which in turn leads to faster case closings.
The Department agreed to the terms of the Nunez Consent Decree because they aligned with the 14-Point Anti-Violence Reform Agenda that was already underway. The Consent Decree and the 14-Point Plan are designed to achieve the same goals: ensuring safety, reducing violence, and changing the Department’s culture.
The Department is early in the reform implementation process. Meaningful reform takes time, but we are seeing the impact of the efforts we have made. There is still significant improvement to be made, but with the continued effort of our staff, the Department will succeed to become the leader in corrections that we strive to be.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and for your continued support. We are happy to answer any questions that you may have.