New York City's Department of Correction plans to discipline more than a dozen officers for their conduct related to the death of Layleen Polanco, who died at Rikers Island in 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the action Friday after the DOC concluded its six-month investigation into Polanco's death. 17 officers face disciplinary charges, de Blasio said, and at least four of those officers have already been suspended without pay.
"The death of Layleen Polanco was an incredibly painful moment for our city. What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability," de Blasio said in a statement.
The head of the correction officers’ union called the disciplinary action “a disgrace.” Three officers and one captain were the corrections staffers who were suspended.
Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said his members were being “thrown under the bus” and the suspensions “represent an egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented.”
“If there is anyone who should be held responsible for the death of Layleen Polanco it’s Commissioner Brann and her inept managers,” he said in a statement. “We will vigorously fight these suspensions and refuse to allow this city to demonize correction officers.”
Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Crann said in a statement that the department is "committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” while adding that “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.”
Aside from the four receiving suspensions, a city official told NBC New York the 13 other uniformed staffers will face administrative charges like inefficient performance and making fraudulent log book entries.
Polanco, 27, died in solitary confinement on June 7 of last year after an epileptic seizure, according to a medical examiner’s report. David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family, said that while the discipline was welcome, the need is for institutional accountability.
“Suspending or even firing individual employees will not save the next Layleen from dying,” he said in a statement. “We need to treat trans women as women. We need to end abusive solitary confinement. We need to treat people in jail as humans deserving safety and dignity.”
Earlier this month, the New York City Department of Investigation, tasked with overseeing city employees and contractors, and the Bronx District Attorney's Office concluded that staff members at Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center were not criminally responsible for Polanco’s death, and declined to press charges.
That same report found that staff members at the women’s facility left Polanco alone for up to 47 minutes around the time of her death, a violation of corrections policy requiring checks on prisoners in solitary confinement every 15 minutes. The jail staffers maintain they thought Polanco was asleep in the hours before her cell was finally opened and she was found unresponsive.
Footage outside the Rikers Island jail cell Polanco died reveals that guards tried to wake her for approximately an hour and a half before calling for help.
Her family says the 10 hours of footage taken from a surveillance camera inside the restrictive housing unit where Polanco’s cell was located shows that Rikers staff failed to provide her with medical care that could have saved her life.
“The video is the last piece of the puzzle,” David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of New York and several Rikers staffers, told NBC News. “It's the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help.”
"We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane. 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," said DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, in a statement Friday that accompanied de Blasio's.