New York City’s biggest jail hired a special operations group for $1.2 million to train corrections officers in tactical techniques and weapons on the heels of major push to curb the number of use-of-force incidents at the jail.
The contractor in question, the Virginia-based US Corrections Special Operations Group (US C-SOG), has been stationed at Rikers Island since May, training the jail’s nearly 200 Emergency Services Unit (ESU) officers in tactical techniques including the use of Tasers and Kel-Tec shotguns loaded with rubber “less lethal” ammunition.
Rikers Island has been scrutinized in recent years after numerous allegations related to safety and security issues. Last October, the city settled a class-action lawsuit brought by Rikers inmates alleging civil rights violations and excessive force incidents by corrections officers. That settlement followed a 2014 Department of Justice report describing abuse of inmates by jail staff.
This week, the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) reported a 46% drop in uses of force that resulted in serious injuries on inmates throughout city jails in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period last year. The new statistics mark substantial progress since a federal monitor was appointed last year as part of sweeping reforms to Rikers agreed upon after the settlement.
Moving away from ‘gladiator’ tactics
In March, the DOC signed a 3-year contract with US C-SOG as part of its “anti-violence agenda,” aimed at lowering uses of force within the prison.
But critics have voiced concerns over whether the weapons training included in the contract will help officers more safely and effectively de-escalate situations, or wield the opposite effect.
“Considering the decades-long culture of violence on Rikers, some of it perpetuated by staff, it’s appalling that Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte would invest in tools that have been shown to cause death,” Glenn Martin of the advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA told the New York Daily News in July.
DOC spokeswoman Eve Kessler, however, told Business Insider that some of the tools used in the training “have not been introduced to the jails, but are under consideration as part of a menu of options.” Kessler said US C-SOG "has been shown to lead to fewer excessive force complaints and greater officer safety.“
Kessler said that Rikers has yet to purchase or make plans to purchase any Kel-Tec shotguns, but low-voltage Tasers are currently under consideration for a small group of captains.
US C-SOG senior team leader Joseph Garcia argued that the training his organization provides is about using precise techniques rather than brutalizing inmates.
"Rikers Island has switched to measurable use of force versus gladiator skills, old-school techniques. That is really what it comes down to,” he told Business Insider.
The contract has sparked a debate among corrections officers, their union, and activists, who are at odds over whether the special operations training is the right approach to solving Rikers’ long-standing brutality problem.
“Officers are being written up all the time and charged with using too much pepper spray, yet here we are on Rikers practicing with rubber pellets shooting shotguns,” one ESU officer reportedly told the New York Post last month.
The Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), too, has criticized the group’s presence, noting that they have safety concerns and weren’t consulted before the contract was signed.
“The issue we have is all about safety. In this case the Department isn’t following their own protocols, and that becomes a matter of safety,” COBA President Elias Husamudeen told Business Insider in a statement. COBA declined to explain in detail what their safety concerns were, and would not identify which protocols it accused the corrections department of breaking.
A 'double-edged sword’
US C-SOG, which has trained correctional officers for years, has raised eyebrows in the past for its dramatic videos and social media presence, which often display officers wearing military-style gear and appearing heavily armed.
But Garcia disputes the common characterization of his group as a military-style organization.
Instead, the training is about using precise modern techniques to break up fights among inmates or extracting prisoners from cells, Garcia said, noting that guards frequently storm into those situations five or six at a time and begin using elbows, knees, batons, or pepper spray to force inmates into submission. That’s when instances of officer brutality or uses of excessive force occur, he said.
US C-SOG argues that by using modern technology and weapons, including shotguns, Tasers, and body cameras, officers can use a more exact amount of force and ensure they never apply more than necessary.
The Kel-Tec shotguns, for instance, are designed to deploy a single round at a time at a speed of 500 feet per second. The rounds, which don’t break the skin, hit an inmate a little harder than a paintball would, according to Garcia. The goal is to use them when de-escalating situations, while using the least amount of force possible, he said.
The amount of precision the shotguns provide could never be achieved by using batons or elbows, he added — particularly when guards are required to wear body cameras.
“When you’re used to operating and hiding behind bureaucracy, behind red tape, I guess you could do whatever you want and say — But now you’re going to have to show me on video. You have to show me how you used the lowest level of de-escalation techniques.”
But modernizing corrections officers’ equipment to such an extent can be a double-edged sword, according to Kevin Minor, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice.
Garcia is right about the benefits of being able to measure guards’ use of force on inmates, Minor said, but problems can arise if guards become overly dependent on weapons. During a time when the American public is debating whether police departments are becoming too militarized, using advanced weapons training inside prisons may not provide the best optics for the public, and can antagonize inmates as well, Minor said.
“It’s not necessarily a good sign that a facility has to resort to such measures in the first place. It’s often a sign that there’s too much violence embedded in the culture to start with when you have to resort to something like this,” he said.
A lot will also depend on the way such training will be demonstrated to the inmates, Minor added. If guards are flaunting their Tasers and using their training to intimidate, some inmates will respond in kind, by becoming increasingly militarized themselves.
“Is this something that is held out to the inmate culture as tools that we will use as a last resort? Something that we will use only if you force us to? Or is it something held out to the inmates as, 'We’ve got a new toy, and we are happy to use it against you.’ Those are two very different messages that you’re sending to them.”