The New York City correction commissioner announced Wednesday he was firing a captain and five Rikers Island guards who hogtied an inmate and then, while his hands were still cuffed behind him and his ankles shackled, savagely beat him in April 2012.
The inmate, Robert Hinton, who was being held in solitary confinement on a cellblock for men with mental illnesses, emerged from the beating with a broken nose and a fractured vertebra; his eyes were swollen shut; and he was bleeding from the mouth.
The decision by the commissioner, Joseph Ponte, followed an unusually forceful ruling by an administrative law judge last fall, who wrote that she was recommending the dismissal of all six in hopes that it would send a message that “silence and collusion” among officers would not be tolerated. Usually, in past brutality cases, officers were given suspensions and then returned to work.
A representative of the Bronx district attorney, whose office has jurisdiction over Rikers criminal matters, said the case was under investigation for possible criminal prosecution.
“My decision makes clear that there is no room for this type of behavior on Rikers,” Ponte said in a statement. “We must have a higher expectation of performance in situations like this, and while acknowledging how difficult the officers’ job is, we must also accept the need to earn back the faith and trust of the community we serve.”
Ponte’s decision is the latest signal that pressure by federal and city officials, as well as reports in the news media, over the last year to rein in the violence at Rikers is having an impact.
Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed in November to make ending the violence at Rikers a priority and has allocated millions of dollars to improve the jail, including adding staff members and tripling the surveillance cameras.
But the decision to fire the six officers comes nearly three years after the beating, an indication of the deep dysfunction that officials and advocates say has long plagued the Correction Department’s disciplinary system.
An analysis of 10 years of administrative trial data by The New York Times in cases involving correction officers and excessive force found that it took an average of 30 months between the date of the incident and the judge’s ruling, a time period when guards can continue working.
Eight months after the episode, the captain who oversaw the beating and was fired, Budnarine Behari, was involved in another vicious encounter that was highlighted in reports by The Times and by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. In that episode, witnesses said, Behari and several other officers handcuffed two inmates to a gurney, wheeled them into a room without security cameras and beat them until blood spattered the walls.
Also fired Wednesday were Officers Geronimo Almanzar and Vincent Siederman, who were found guilty of using excessive force and then lying about it to investigators, along with Officers Paul Bunton, Ramon Cabrera and Raul Marquez, who were charged with giving false statements to investigators and filing false incident reports.
Hinton, who is being held at Elmira State Prison on a parole violation stemming from an attempted murder conviction, has sued the department.
Disciplinary cases are typically handled internally by the department. But if officers choose to contest the decision, as they did in this case, the matter is sent to an administrative trial judge.
This is the first time since becoming commissioner that Ponte has received a judge’s recommendation to dismiss an officer in a brutality case, correction officials said. The last guard to be dismissed for using excessive force was Kadar Stapleton in January 2014, by Dora B. Schriro, the previous commissioner. In that case, the judge wrote that the guard had repeatedly punched and kicked an inmate with mental illness while he was lying on the ground primarily because the man was making “loud and disruptive remarks.”
In her decision, Tynia Richard, the administrative law judge, noted that Hinton, who is 6-foot-3, was a member of the Bloods gang, had a history of violence and took medication for aggression and paranoia. But she also described several of the officers as physically formidable, noting that one had been a boxer.
Richard contrasted the severity of the inmate’s injuries with the officers’, which she called “minimal.” She noted that the only officer given medication, Bunton, was “sent home with Tylenol.”
James Frankie, a lawyer who represents Behari, said there were enough problems with the judge’s decision that he had expected Ponte to overrule the recommendation for dismissal. He said he planned to appeal to either the state courts or the Civil Service Commission, which could take six months to a year. During that time, Behari would not be permitted to work at the jail or collect a salary.