NYC Prison Officers Use Excessive Force, Report Finds

By Alison Markman

New York City, New York

"The entire system of use-of-force reporting depends upon officers giving accurate facts and telling the truth about what happened." (Photo Credit: City and State)

According to a report by the New York Times, more than half of police officers in New York City jails have lied or provided false accounts of incidents that they were disciplined for. These reports were found in official documents or statements over a twenty-month investigation.


The city’s jail system has long been accused of excessive force––notably in Rikers Island––but new documents prove that claims of excessive force are extensive. In 2015, the city settled a case over abuses at a Rikers Island facility. In the settlement, the de Blasio administration committed to many reforms, such as a restriction of the use of force by guards on inmates and the installation of security cameras to increase accountability.


In response to these reports, Mary Lynn Werlas, Director of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners Rights Project said, “The entire system of use-of-force reporting depends upon officers giving accurate facts and telling the truth about what happened. Unless there is video evidence, the officer’s word gets credited when it is an incarcerated person’s word against an officer’s.”


In the report, deception was found as a common occurrence. Over 270 officers were disciplined between early 2019 and late 2020. 56% of those officers lied on reports or provided inaccurate information. To find these inconsistencies, officials compare the statements from officers with evidence such as security footage.


Some of these inconsistencies have been attributed to recollection, Joseph Russo, president of the NYC Correction Union, said. However, there is no way that lack in recollection caused all the inconsistencies. To resolve this issue, the Department of Correction has instituted courses to aid officers in filling out incident reports as well as overall writing skills.


Officers reported to the New York Times that some of the false reports were to cover up abuses of power or mistakes. One said that they saw a colleague use excessive force on an inmate and omitted the incident on an official report. In addition, a captain once asked the source to change a time on an incident report in an attempt to cover it up.


Lawrence Wallace applied an upper body hold on an inmate. Officers claimed that the hold was used due to the inmate being uncontrolled and defiant in the report in 2017, yet two years later Wallace pleaded guilty to an internal department excessive force charge. He had been disciplined more than any other staffer over a two-year period from 2017 to 2019, exactly eight times.


Officers who abuse their power are facing few repercussions, the report showed. Only nine of the guards were forced to retire, twenty-four were suspended and some were put on probation or lost vacation days. The ones who resigned filed false reports about excessive force. A correction department spokesman said that disciplinary processes slowed because of outside factors, such as the department of investigations or prosecutors.


An inmate has the constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. If any officer is caught trespassing their duties or an inmate’s constitutional right, they could face separation from office, a federal lawsuit or even a criminal lawsuit if the incident calls for criminal charges to be pressed against them.


Institutions that are discovered to harbor an officer who displays excessive force may be penalized. Institutions could face an injunction, which are policies put in place to ensure that revisions are made to discourage misconduct from law enforcement officers.