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How should COs assist a colleague under attack?

After video captured two captains retreating from an area as a third captain was attacked by inmates, the officers have been suspended. How should they have handled the situation?


Correctional officers are frequently asked to make decisions in situations that are uncertain, tense and rapidly evolving. These situations often include instances where the presence of danger is involved and the use of force is a possible option. Correctional officers understand their duty to protect the public and even the inmates, but perhaps no sense of duty is as strong as their commitment to protecting fellow officers.

Video shows inmate assault on correctional officer

Recently, two Rikers captains – Ricardo Reimers and Keith Phillip – were suspended when they retreated from an area as a third captain – Awais Ghauri – was attacked by an inmate at Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Thanksgiving.

A decision to demote the captains to officers does nothing to address the actual problem. (Image/NY DOC)
A decision to demote the captains to officers does nothing to address the actual problem. (Image/NY DOC)

Video of the incident shows two other inmates join in the attack as Captain Ghauri began to improve his position as the assault moved to the ground. Upon further review of the video, it appears as though a large group of inmates were acting in an aggressive fashion toward the fleeing captains as well.

The conduct of the demoted captains was called into question by the captains’ union with Union President Patrick Ferraiuolo stating, “There is no room for cowards in my rank. I’m not defending them.”

While unusual coming from a union representative, the sentiment is expected within the world of public safety where pride is taken in the philosophy of “having each other’s back.”

Use-of-force incidents can be challenging to assess

It’s always difficult to evaluate use-of-force incidents without having every single piece of information known to the subjects involved at the time of the event. Even the case of Graham v. Connor tells us that incidents should not be judged using hindsight. Instead, use-of-force incidents should be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person on the scene taking into consideration all of the factors that they would have known or not known at the time.

In comprehensively evaluating the response or, in this case, the lack of response by the two captains at Rikers, we should consider all information prior to rendering a final judgement.

We know one thing: Upon an initial review of the situation the department felt it appropriate to take action in the form of a suspension. It is likely the captains will be demoted to the correction officer rank.

Correctional officers work in a dangerous environment

The prison environment is dangerous, and the safe and effective operation of correctional facilities is dependent upon the courage and sound judgment of those officers sworn to protect.

Officers understand that fulfilling their duties may mean having to place themselves in harm’s way. This does not mean that officers should treat themselves as disposable heroes and act recklessly without regard to their own safety. Instead, this means that correctional officers, the same as police officers, must weigh the risk associated with taking action and understand how their actions will impact their own safety and the safety of others involved, as well as the outcome of the overall incident.

There are times when acting too soon or too quickly can add to the complexity of an emergency rather than achieve resolution. For example, if a police officer responds to a call of an officer in need of assistance and they create an auto accident by driving recklessly to the emergency, they compound the problem by creating a second emergency and offer nothing to resolve the first. Similar scenarios exist in the correctional facility setting when staff respond to emergencies.

For most corrections staff it’s difficult to fathom a situation where they would not come to the aid of a fellow officer in need. In the Rikers incident it seems as if there must be some feeling on the part of the department that there may have been a dereliction of duty on the part of the captains who fled the scene.

Policy and training must address problems, not just disciplinary action

If an investigation determines that the captains neglected to act when they should have, an honest discussion needs to take place with regard to the action taken by the department. A decision to demote the captains to officers does nothing to address the actual problem. The facility may need to seriously consider their viability as officers within the field of corrections. A decision to demote does not resolve an issue, it only moves it.

Correctional officers are the first line of defense within a correctional facility. More than any other job in a prison, correctional officers must understand the duties associated with their jobs and understand the risks that come along with them. Officers have a duty to protect the public, a duty to protect inmates and a duty to protect each other. If they don’t, who will?

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