New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that 17 uniformed staffers from the New York Department of Correction will face disciplinary action for their role in the death of transgender woman Layleen Polanco while in custody at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island.
“The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city,” de Blasio said in his announcement. “What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability.”
Three officers and one captain have been suspended without pay following an internal investigation by the Department of Correction, and 13 other staffers will face administrative charges of “failing to tour” — meaning they failed to properly tour their assigned areas in the jail — as well as inefficient performance and making fraudulent log book entries, reports the New York Daily News.
Polanco, who suffered from epilepsy and schizophrenia, died of an epileptic seizure while in custody on June 7, 2019. At the time of her death, she had been placed in solitary confinement after getting into a fight.
Correction Department officers were supposed to check on her periodically, as Polanco had already suffered two seizures and sustained a head injury while in custody.
Around 2:40 p.m., an officer knocked on the cell door, but heard no response. Video footage from outside Polanco’s cell shows that officers tried to wake her for 90 minutes before calling for help.
Following an investigation into Polanco’s death, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced her office would not pursue charges against prison staffers.
Polanco’s family has since filed a civil lawsuit against the city and prison officials, claiming that staff did not provide her with adequate medical care, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The city’s Board of Correction, which oversees the Correction Department, issued a report on Monday outlining a series of systematic failures that contributed to Polanco’s death, and made 25 recommendations that could prevent the deaths of other inmates in the future.
David Shanies, an attorney representing Polanco’s family, said that de Blasio and the city must do more to ensure similar tragedies do not occur.
“We welcome news of discipline, but until we know the who, what, and how, there is no knowing how meaningful this announcement is,” Shanies told the Daily News. “If the Mayor wants to take meaningful action, he should start by announcing that the City will implement the two dozen reforms urged by the Board of Correction in response to Layleen’s death.”
Correction Department Commissioner Cynthia Brann called the decision to seek disciplinary action against the 17 staffers “swift and fair.”
“We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” she said in a statement. “Even one death in our custody is one too many. and this swift and fair determination on internal discipline makes clear that the safety and well-being of people in our custody remains our top priority.”
But Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officer Benevolent Association, claims that the staffers facing discipline are being scapegoated for institutional failures and mismanagement by the department’s leadership, including Brann.
“These suspensions represent an egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented,” he said. “Our members are being thrown under the bus when even the Bronx District Attorney found they did nothing wrong.
“If there is anyone who should be held responsible for the death of Layleen Polanco, it’s Commissioner Brann and her inept managers,” Husamudeen added. “We will vigorously fight these suspensions and refuse to allow this city to demonize correction officers. This is a disgrace.”
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