NEW YORK – One applicant to be a New York City correction officer had been fired from his last job as a security guard for stealing. Another admitted he had regularly socialized with gang members. Another had debts of more than $400,000.
Yet all those candidates and dozens like them were hired last year to be part of the force overseeing nearly 11,000 inmates on Rikers Island, according to a yearlong city probe of jail hiring practices released Thursday. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the findings hours before they were to be announced.
The probe found systemic problems with the Department of Correction hiring system, including no recruiting strategy for the past six years, that allowed an alarmingly high number of hires who had arrest records, gang ties or other red flags that are markers for corruption.
Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters said the chronic problems of violence, smuggling and bribery that plague the city jails can all be traced to the character and qualifications of the employees.
"Unless you have consistently qualified correction officers, solving the other problems we care about is an almost insurmountable task," Peters said.
"This is just a function of, for a decade, hirings and screenings and investigations being ignored."
City investigators randomly pulled 153 application files of guards hired last year and found that 54 — or 35 percent — "presented significant red flags that should have either precluded their hiring outright or required further follow-up."
The probe found 79 hired officers admitted having friends or family members who were inmates — including one with nine relatives who had done time in Rikers. Ten new hires had been arrested more than once, and another 12 had been rejected by the significantly higher standards of the New York Police Department, including six for psychological reasons and one who failed a drug test.
In all, this group appeared "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.
Jails Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has pledged to reform the troubled correction department, said in a statement he was committed to "improving staff recruitment, training and retention" and would implement many of the investigators' recommendations.
Those included automatically disqualifying applicants who had been fired from a public agency or had any felony convictions in the past five years.
Since the investigation, three of the problem hires have been fired for misconduct, including one who had an "unduly familiar" relationship with an inmate later arrested in a murder-for-hire plot. Two of the hires resigned. Corrections officials wouldn't say what they will do with the rest.
Among other findings, there was no evidence applicants had been screened for gang affiliation, even though the jails' own intelligence officers rank it as the top threat to safety. It wasn't until after probe began that the jails began taking photos of applicants' tattoos to check for possible gang ties.
Investigators deemed application investigators undertrained and found they failed to make meaningful background checks or run credit reports. They were also reliant on an applicant evaluation scale of 1 to 5 despite no clear understanding of whether a '1' or a '5' was the best score. Thus, the report found, 90 percent of applicants received a meaningless '3' on the scale.
Investigators found seven instances when the deputy commissioner in charge of hiring reversed decisions to reject unqualified candidates. In one case, a reject who scored poorly on the psychological exam was hired after her file noted she was a family friend of Norman Seabrook, the powerful president of the union representing 9,000 city correction officers. Seabrook didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
Rikers has come under increased scrutiny in the past year by the media and investigators, including federal prosecutors who have sued the city to institute reforms to what it has called a "deep-seated culture of violence."