Seventeen New York City correction officers, including a captain, will face disciplinary actions for their roles in the death just over a year ago of a 27-year-old transgender woman at the Rikers Island jail complex, officials said Friday.
The captain and three other officers were suspended without pay immediately for their conduct in the death of the woman, Layleen Polanco, who was found unresponsive in her cell after having an epileptic seizure, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
“What happened to Layleen was absolutely unacceptable and it is critical that there is accountability,” de Blasio said in a statement.
The mayor’s announcement came three weeks after Darcel Clark, the Bronx district attorney, said that she had declined to pursue criminal charges against any Rikers officers after a six-month investigation into Polanco’s death.
On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Correction issued a scathing report detailing a series of failures that it said probably contributed to Polanco’s death. The deficiencies noted by the board included Rikers staff members failing to check on her for periods of 35 and 41 minutes during the critical hours after she was last seen alive.
Lawyers for Polanco’s family said the disciplinary charges were an important first step to ensure accountability in Polanco’s death, but they criticized officials’ delay in punishing the jail officers.
“Most employers would not wait a year before trying to remedy a problem of this magnitude,” David Shanies, a lawyer for the family.
He added: “Layleen’s case laid bare so many of the flaws that we still have in our criminal justice system that still need to be addressed.”
Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, vowed to fight the suspensions.
“These suspensions represent an egregious abuse of power that is unprecedented,” Husamudeen said in a statement. He noted that Clark had decided not to bring criminal charges and said that his union’s members were being “thrown under the bus.”
Husamudeen said Cynthia Brann, the city’s correction commissioner, and “her inept managers” were responsible for Polanco’s death.
At the time of her death, on June 7, 2019, Polanco was being held in solitary confinement after being jailed about two months earlier on misdemeanor assault charges and failing to come up with $500 in bail.
“We are committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safe and humane,” Brann said in a statement. “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.”