The New York Civil Liberties Union is filing an amicus brief today urging a state Supreme Court to reject an effort by Rikers Island corrections officers to remove from public view decades of disciplinary decisions about officer misconduct. The request comes at a time when Rikers Island is under intense public scrutiny due to the culture of violence at the facility in which guards regularly abuse incarcerated people with impunity.
“The First Amendment grants us the right to see records of government misconduct for very good reason: We can’t stop abuse if we don’t know how and when it occurs,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn. “Removing these decisions from public view would send the message that corrections officers can brutalize prisoners without any public accountability.”
The federal government recently intervened after a 2014 Department of Justice report found that incarcerated teenagers at Rikers were beaten with radios, batons and broomsticks. Within the last four years, the Bronx District Attorney’s Office has reportedly prosecuted 41 corrections officers, with 33 of those cases involving charges of excessive force or suspected cover-ups. And last month, the city established a commission, led by Chief State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Lippman, to determine if it could shrink the jail population enough to make “the dream of closing Rikers Island a reality.”
“The culture of secrecy, corruption and abuse at Rikers has gone on for too long,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We need more transparency about the rampant brutality at Rikers, not less, as the city makes high-stakes decisions about the future of Rikers Island.”
One of the few windows into the rampant abuse at Rikers is provided by the disciplinary decisions of officers given by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). In this case, Aubrey Victor, a corrections officer, was charged in 2011 with striking a teenager incarcerated at Rikers without provocation and brutally stomping on his head three times as he lay on the ground. The incident was caught on video. Following a trial, an OATH judge found that Victor had used excessive force and that some of his testimony was “incredible.” If OATH’s decision had not been publicly posted, Victor’s conduct would have stayed a secret.
Victor’s lawsuit seeks to have the entire OATH ruling about his case removed from the public records, as well as those of all other correction officers. If the petition were granted, decades of disciplinary decisions covering all corrections officers at Rikers Island and elsewhere would be wiped out of the public domain and all future disciplinary decisions would be barred from being publicly disclosed.
In its brief, the NYCLU contends that the public has a First Amendment right to access the types of records Victor is attempting to seal, as supported by years of Supreme Court law and a recent Court of Appeals case brought by the NYCLU. Courts have consistently found that a key reason for the right to access those records is to promote debate and government accountability. With New York City currently in a high-stakes debate about closing Rikers Island, removing the disciplinary rulings from the public domain would in particular have enormous negative consequences for the public discourse.
The New York Times also has sought to intervene in the case to oppose the effort by the corrections officers. A hearing is scheduled for May 23 before Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Hagler.