NYC Jails Fail to Screen for Ex-Cons and Gang Members When Hiring Jail Guards
Although the city’s police and correction officers share similar epithets—New York’s Finest and New York’s Boldest—they are not the same in nature.
When the city government watchdog, the Department of Investigation, reviewed a random sample of 153 recently hired jail guards’ applicant files, it found that more than a third of them had prior arrests and convictions, were associated with local gangs, or presented other red flags “that should have either precluded their hiring outright or required further follow-up or monitoring,” it said. The findings were released in a report on Thursday.
One applicant was fired from his previous job as a security guard because he was caught stealing from the store he was guarding. Another owed more than $200,000 in personal debt. Yet another was formerly employed at a strip club that was the target of several criminal investigations.
Though both the city police and jails play a role in the criminal justice system, the Department of Correction has far less stringent qualifications for its officers, the report found.
Twelve correction officers were previously rejected from employment at the police department. Some were rejected due to the NYPD’s more comprehensive psychological exam, while others were disqualified after the NYPD conducted thorough background checks.
“It appears that most of these candidates were simply unfit for law enforcement—whether working on the streets of New York City as police officers or in its jails,” according to the report.
Sixty-five of the applicants reviewed in the report obtained results on their psychological exams that suggested incompetence for the job, like low stress tolerance or unfit personality traits. In several cases, the director of the correction department’s Applicant Investigation Unit—the unit in charge of screening potential hires—advised against employing these individuals, but the agency’s then-Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources and Training Alan Vengersky, approved them for hire without a clear, written explanation for his decision.
One applicant—whose file notes that she is a “family friend of Norman Seabrook,” the president of the correction officers union—showed low personality development on the exam. The director concluded she was “too deferential to other people, including inmates,” and unfit to become an officer. But Vengersky overruled the director’s recommendation and hired the applicant.
On Thursday, Seabrook said in an emailed comment that he did not know the candidate mentioned in the report. “What I can say is I will always try to take someone from welfare to workfare and it could be as to you or I giving someone a recommendation that doesn’t mean I hired them,” he said.
Seabrook also expressed that many people in the city are acquainted with people with questionable backgrounds, but that should not disqualify them from a job if they meet the hiring standards.
NYPD Versus DOC
The report also compared hiring practices at the NYPD and the corrections department. At the police department’s applicant screening division, staff gets a two-week training course on how to conduct interviews, learning investigative skills, and identifying signs of gang membership. During the hiring process, they conduct field interviews with the applicant’s friends, neighbors, and previous co-workers.
By contrast, correction department staff lacks training or a manual on hiring procedures. They rarely visit the applicants’ homes or check personal references. The staff also did not screen for gang affiliation.
One job candidate admitted to knowing gang members in the past and said he still kept in touch with them. Although the staff made note of this on the applicant file and suggested informing the agency’s Correction Intelligence Bureau (CIB), no such notification took place and the individual was hired. The CIB is in charge of monitoring gang activity within the jail facilities.
The police department lists conditions that automatically disqualify a candidate, such as a person convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor.
But at the correction department, staff conducted a background investigation into a candidate who was convicted for statutory rape, and ultimately convinced him to withdraw his application. The staff member said she did not reject his application immediately because she thought rules prevented her from doing so.
Out of the files the watchdog agency investigated, three of the new hires with red flags in their applications have had a disciplinary issue.
The agency has since made promises to reform their policies, such as disqualifying anyone who was fired from a government agency and people who had prior contact with two or more jail inmates. They also plan to adopt a training program for the staff at the applicant screening unit.
Mayor de Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte in March last year as the new correction department commissioner. All the jail guards were hired prior to Ponte’s tenure.
In a statement on Thursday, Ponte said, “Improving staff recruitment, training, and retention is a key part of my agenda of meaningful reform.”