STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — City officials hope shifting NYPD officers to the city’s court system will help address the ongoing crisis on Rikers Island, but two local Republicans said Wednesday that plan could make the city’s streets less safe, including on Staten Island.
City Councilman Joe Borelli (R-South Shore), and former Rep. Vito Fossella, the Republican candidate for Staten Island Borough President, held a press conference to alert the public to their concerns.
“This is a crisis of the mayor (Bill de Blasio) and progressive Democrats’ own doing,” Borelli said. “We have a situation where we don’t have enough correction officers — they’re working three and four shifts at a time — and the best way that Mayor de Blasio and his City Hall companions can come up with is pulling police officers off the street.”
The mayor announced Tuesday that the city would shift 100 police officers to its court system to handle duties that correction officers normally fill, like prisoner transport.
That will allow the city to shift correction officers to Rikers Island to address staffing shortages there. Conditions have become so severe at the jail that 12 inmates have died in the past 12 months.
After a visit Tuesday, Attorney General Letitia James said she was “deeply disturbed,” and examining her legal options to address the crisis.
“For years, Rikers has been plagued by dysfunction, neglect and violence, and it’s clear we’ve reached a breaking point,” James said. “These conditions have led to an unprecedented and devastating number of deaths, and action is desperately needed.”
A city order issued Monday night moved 23 officers from precincts in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens to courts in the Bronx and Manhattan starting Tuesday and effective through Dec. 19.
Police officers already serve in those capacities in Brooklyn’s court, and the city has not indicated that it plans to move any cops from Staten Island.
The 23 transferred officers come from some of the busiest precincts in the city, including the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx and the 75th Precinct in East New York.
“We believe they will lean upon, and take police officers from Staten Island, and the consequence is obvious — our streets will be less safe,” Fossella said.
He also called attention to a group of congress members calling for the city to immediately close Rikers Island. But the Mayor has said definitively that the city won’t be doing that, and will instead proceed with the closure plan that’s already in place.
The Mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but on Wednesday, de Blasio reaffirmed the city’s commitment to close Rikers Island while acknowledging the need to improve existing conditions there.
In 2019, the City Council passed and the Mayor signed local legislation that would provide more than $8 billion to close the almost-century-old jail complex by 2026, and replace with four local jails in each of the boroughs except Staten Island.
“There is a lot of work to do right this moment, but what’s clear is we are all adamant about making every change we need to make to get the situation under control,” de Blasio said.
The Mayor and other city officials have blamed staffing shortages on the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) and individual officers’ excessive use of sick days.
On Sunday, the city filed a lawsuit against COBA and some of its top executives that seeks to force the union to end what the city characterizes as an “illegal job action” encouraging officers to take erroneous sick time, or face a daily penalty of $1 million.
COBA President Benny Boscio said Monday that the Mayor’s lawsuit was “meritless” and that the city falsely accused the union of encouraging a job action.
In addition to those efforts, the city has also expressed the intention to hire private security guards to supplement the Rikers staffing shortage, but, as Borelli pointed out, that plan is in conflict with a 2002 state law that prohibits the private sector from guarding city inmates.
During his Wednesday media briefing, de Blasio expressed the belief that the unique situation of what’s going on at Rikers and the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic provide emergency circumstances necessary to circumvent that law. When those circumstances end, the Mayor said the city would stop its emergency efforts, including private security.
“We need to support the officers who are doing the right thing. We need to create a safe environment for the inmates. We’re going to use whatever tools we have,” de Blasio said. “Until this moment has passed, we’re going to use whatever tool it takes to keep people safe.”