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New Hope for Rikers Reform

Heidi Boghosian Jun 29

Norman Seabrook, president of New York’s Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, was arrested by the FBI at his Bronx home early in the morning of June 7. Leader of the union representing guards at Rikers Island and other city jails for 21 years, he faces federal fraud charges.

The charges stem from one of several corruption investigations by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Seabrook is accused of illegitimately investing approximately $15 million from the union’s welfare fund, along with $5 million in dues, in the high-risk hedge fund Platinum Partners. He allegedly received a $60,000 kickback from Platinum executive Murray Huberfeld in exchange. The $81 million welfare fund provides corrections officers with annuities upon retirement, or post-employment payments; the city contributes about $1,400 per year per officer. Decisions about how the fund is managed are supposed to be made by a five-member board of COBA officers. Yet, according to Crain’s New York Business, even advisors and attorneys failed to persist in objecting to Seabrook’s plan to put nearly 20 percent of the fund’s assets into a high-risk hedge fund. They were all afraid of being fired.

In the language of the landmark 1972 Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption, Seabrook would be a “meat eater.” The commission defined “grass eaters” as officers who succumb to low-level corruption, such as accepting free meals or small payoffs when offered. “Meat eaters,” on the other hand, were those who actively and consciously sought out ways to collect more money, such as shaking down drug dealers and gambling operations, or systematically taking bribes to protect them.

Seabrook, however, might be worse. His abuse was systemic and exploited the vulnerable. He used the power of his position for personal gain, and put into jeopardy his 9,000 union members’ benefits. Bucking the trend of improving conditions of confinement to make all involved safer, he thwarted much-needed reforms to the conditions in which thousands of prisoners, many of them young, are held. To further his agenda, he engaged in fear-mongering rhetoric and ugly caricatures. When Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed respected prison reformer Joseph Ponte as corrections commissioner, Seabrook held a news conference where he called Ponte’s approach “hug a thug.” 

Fearmongering

COBA ousted Seabrook as president on June 10, three days after his arrest. He had survived previous allegations of misconduct, including sexual impropriety, as well as accusations that he perpetuated a culture in which corrections officers went unpunished for brutal assaults on inmates.

His tactics in opposing reforms paralleled those used by the police over the last 50 years. Fifty years ago this July, Mayor John Lindsay restructured the city Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reviewed complaints about police brutality and corruption, to give civilians a 4-3 majority on it. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association organized to place a referendum to abolish the board on the November 1966 ballot. 

The cops hired a high-level public relations firm to develop their ideological media campaign. Billboards and advertisements were plastered throughout the city, with images of looted stores and ruined streets depicting the apocalyptic New York that would result if civilian-review proponents prevailed. One ad featured black and Latino youths with chains and switchblades standing by a subway exit while a white woman emerged. The initiative succeeded. Voters in all boroughs except Manhattan overwhelmingly favored ending civilian review. Two decades would go by before Mayor Ed Koch created a 12-member review board evenly divided between civilians and police representatives.

COBA under Seabrook used similar tactics. He publicized the slogan “Safer Jails Matter,” a play on “Black Lives Matter,” below graphic images of injured corrections officers and inmates. When reform efforts were proposed, he contended that violence against guards wasn’t taken seriously. In 2013, when prosecutors charged 10 officers in a beating that fractured an inmate’s nose and eye sockets, Seabrook zealously defended them.

According to a New York Times investigation, Seabrook’s influence yielded great benefits for his members while fostering a culture of corruption and violence at Rikers. Current and former city officials repeatedly described him as the biggest obstacle to efforts to curb brutality and malfeasance on the island. He resisted increased penalties for excessive force by guards and stronger screening measures designed to stop corrections officers from bringing contraband into the jails. Regarded as a bully, he wielded formidable influence within the department based largely on fear, that he may ruin reputations or put officers’ safety at risk on the job. 

Power Plays

Seabrook has pulled a number of overt power plays to shut down reformers. He launched a two-year campaign to oust Florence Finkle, former chief investigator for the city Department of Correction, after she announced plans to send more cases to prosecutors. After calling for her resignation and interfering with her investigations, Seabrook replaced her with one of his childhood friends, a former senior New York Police Dept. official.

He also used Chris Christie-type tactics to sabotage opponents’ transportation. On November 18, 2013, when Rikers inmate Dapree Peterson was to testify against two corrections officers in a brutality case, Seabrook refused to let workers transport inmates to and from court. Hundreds missed court dates, including Peterson, whose beating had been investigated and referred for prosecution by Finkle.

In November 2012, when then-Commissioner Donna Schriro was leading several dozen women to Rikers Island for a tour, Seabrook dispatched an officer dressed as the children’s cartoon character Dora the Explorer to dance on the side of the one road leading to the island. Drivers stopped to gawk and the commissioner’s bus was stuck in traffic that backed up for miles, according to several officials who were there. The delay required the city to pay overtime when officers on the next shift could not get to work on time.

Correction Commissioner Ponte has proposed a comprehensive long-term plan for reform at Rikers, including increased use of surveillance cameras, recruitment of better-qualified corrections officers, improved health services, new rules on how force is used to restrain inmates, the creation of a new separate housing unit for younger detainees and limits on punitive segregation, also known as solitary confinement. 

If Norman Seabrook is convicted, a key impediment to implementing these much-needed reforms at Rikers Island will be gone.

 


Super Bowl Trip vs. Black Life

One might be forgiven for thinking that in the eyes of the law taking kickbacks is a worse offense than killing an unarmed black man. 

What began as an investigation into New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign financing grew into a far-reaching bribery scandal in June, so far exempting the mayor, but wrapping several city officials and political power players in its tendrils. 

The latest to be ensnared: Deputy Chief Michael Harrington and Deputy Inspector James Grant of the NYPD. The two were arraigned on corruption charges on June 20 for accepting lavish gifts — including a trip to the Super Bowl and a vacation in the company of a prostitute — from two Brooklyn businessmen and de Blasio donors, Jeremiah Reichberg and Jona Rechnitz. In return, the businessmen “got cops on call,” as Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, put it. Highway lanes were closed at their behest and they were chauffeured about town in police cruisers. 

Meanwhile, July 17 will mark the second anniversary of Eric Garner’s killing. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who a bystander filmed choking the 43-year-old African-American father of six. The NYPD has yet to release the results of its internal review of Pantaleo’s conduct, and there has been no announcement from the Justice Department regarding its civil rights investigation of the incident either.

Deputy Chief Harrington and Deputy Inspector Grant are staring down the barrel at 20 years in prison for accepting bribes. Officer Pantaleo remains free.

— Peter Rugh


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