In Rare Rebuke for Rikers Officers, Judge Urges Firing of 6 Who Beat Inmate
By Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, New York Times
In April 2012, on a cellblock for inmates with mental illnesses, five Rikers Island guards and a captain hogtied Robert Hinton, cuffing his hands behind his back and shackling his ankles, then carried him face down, by his arms and legs, into a solitary confinement cell.
When they emerged 10 minutes later, Mr. Hinton’s nose was broken, his eyes were swollen shut, he was bleeding from the mouth and had a fractured vertebra.
In past Rikers Island brutality cases, correction officers have frequently managed to escape serious punishment. But in a highly unusual legal decision published on Monday, Tynia Richard, an administrative law judge, wrote that the six officers had lied about what had happened; that Mr. Hinton had been handcuffed during the entire episode, and that because such “brazen misconduct” must be put to an end, she was recommending the most severe sanction available: termination of employment for all six.
“Hopefully, it will help break the vise grip that silence and collusion played in this incident,” she wrote.
The judge’s decision is a fresh indication that pressure by federal prosecutors, as well as scrutiny by the media, may be starting to have an effect on the way such brutality cases, long tolerated at the Department of Correction, are handled.
Nevertheless, the fact that two and a half years elapsed between the episode and the judge’s decision underscores what continues to be a crucial issue at Rikers: the slow pace of internal investigations of guards accused in brutality cases.
Last week, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, warned that he would sue the city if officials did not deliver quickly enough on promised overhauls. In August, his office released a scathing 79-page report that found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers toward adolescent inmates. And The New York Times in July documented 129 cases in which inmates, many with mental illnesses, were severely injured in altercations with guards last year.
Both the federal report and the article in The Times highlighted how rare it was for officers to be punished for acts of brutality.
In the Hinton case, even while the captain involved, Budnarine Behari, was awaiting disciplinary action, he was implicated in a second brutality case, eight months later, that was singled out in both the investigation by The Times and the federal report.
In December 2012, in the same jail building where Mr. Hinton had been beaten, Captain Behari and several other officers handcuffed two inmates to a gurney, wheeled them into a clinic examination room unequipped with security cameras, and according to witnesses, beat the men so severely that their blood splattered over the walls, as the medical staff begged them to stop.
Most enforcement is handled within the department, and although the results are not made public, correction officials say the outcome is typically a suspension of some sort. But if the officer chooses to contest the decision, the cases are sent to administrative trial.
According to an analysis of 10 years of administrative trial data by The New York Times, however, in brutality cases, an average of 30 months elapses between an episode and a judge’s ruling.
Since 2009, 49 officers have been found guilty by an administrative judge in brutality cases. Job termination was recommended for nine. With the rest, the judge recommended only a variety of suspensions, from 5 to 60 days.
The decision released on Monday by Judge Richard now goes to the correction commissioner, who decides whether to accept or modify the recommendations. After that, it can be appealed to the Civil Service Commission.
“To put it mildly, it’s disappointing,” said Mr. Behari’s attorney, James Frankie. “Every favorable point was discounted, minimized or ignored.”
Norman Seabrook, the president of the correction officers’ union, said the episode revealed the poor state of training and supervision at Rikers Island. Though he said he would continue to fight for the jobs of the guards involved, he also said he would again tell his members that such behavior would not be tolerated, even under a supervisor’s orders.
Ultimately, he said, it is the correction officer’s job to make sure that an inmate “goes home the same way he goes in.”
In her 69-page decision, Judge Richard gave a detailed accounting of the violence inflicted on Mr. Hinton, devoting more than two pages to an explanation of the legal definition of hogtying.
She wrote that the 6-foot-3 Mr. Hinton, who has since filed a lawsuit and says he takes medication for aggression and paranoia, had a history of violence as a member of the Bloods gang, with a conviction for attempted murder. Mr. Hinton, 27, is now being held at the Attica Correctional Facility, on a parole violation relating to that conviction.
The six officers were formidable too, she wrote, describing several as “large, muscular men,” one with a yellow belt in jujitsu and another trained as a boxer.
Indeed, during the trial, Officer Geronimo Almanzar demonstrated to the judge how he had used a series of uppercuts and hooks to the head to subdue Mr. Hinton.
There had been bad blood between Captain Behari and Mr. Hinton, the judge wrote. As Mr. Hinton was being transferred to a new cell, he resisted, by sitting down, and at that point was hogtied.
The officers’ accounts, the judge wrote, were riddled with inconsistencies. Officer Paul Bunton initially told an investigator that the encounter had been “a little incident,” but by the time he went to trial he was describing it as “the fight of his life.” He said that the inmate had locked him in a chokehold for a minute and a half, nearly killing him; at the hospital on the night of the episode, the judge wrote, “he made no mention of a chokehold or neck injury or neck pain.”
Immediately after the encounter, Captain Behari told a doctor that he had been kicked in the left knee and right hand; at the trial, the judge said, he described being temporarily immobilized by two kicks to the groin.
The officers’ injuries were “minimal,” Judge Richard concluded, writing that the only one given medication that night was Officer Bunton, who was “sent home with Tylenol.”
Toward the end of the trial, on June 9, Judge Richard interrupted the legal proceedings to visit Rikers Island and examine the scene.
As the judge toured the cellblock, the six officers, most of them dressed in suits, trailed behind her, along with their lawyers and union representatives.
Inmates stared through the windows of their cells and officers whispered to each other as the six men who once controlled the block passed by.
The judge examined cell No. 6, where Mr. Hinton had been housed, then walked over to No. 42, which had been occupied by an inmate who claimed to be a witness to the beating. As she stood in the cell, the judge made notes on a white legal pad. In her decision on Monday, she wrote that the inmate would have had “a direct line of sight into Hinton’s cell.”
She ruled that Captain Behari, Officer Almanzar and Officer Vincent Siederman were guilty of using excessive force and of lying to investigators.
She found Officers Bunton, Raul Marquez and Ramon Cabrera guilty of lying to investigators and writing false incident reports.
On the final page of her decision, the judge took special note of Officer Cabrera, who was the youngest among the guards and still had probationary status. “His youth in the service shows how quickly the meaning of care, custody and control can be corrupted,” she wrote.