Mayor Eric Adams’ new jails boss is replacing the department’s head of investigations, who tackled thousands of backlogged use-of-force cases in collaboration with a court-appointed monitor — drawing the ire of unions representing correction officers.
Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina on Monday afternoon asked Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Investigation Sarena Townsend to immediately step down.
Over the past year, Townsend, 40, processed a mountain of 8,800 internal investigations into the department’s use-of-force incidents against detainees, dating as far back as 2017, according to the latest federal monitor report.
Appointed in 2018, she carried out the orders of a federal court monitor to review all such cases in city jails.
Her successor has not been named yet.
Molina also eased the department’s emergency rule requiring officers who call out sick to check in for a physical exam with a city-contracted doctor.
Former Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi had implemented the procedure last summer to deter officers from falsely claiming to be ill, as officers stayed off the job by the hundreds.
He slammed Molina’s rule change, noting that 2,500 out of 7,700 uniformed staffers had claimed to be sick on Dec. 31.
“Very disturbing sign from @NYCMayor Adams,” Schiraldi tweeted.
‘Disorder and Chaos’
Correction officers have unlimited sick time under their city labor contract, although they must remain in their homes while off. But jail investigators charged with checking on staff have been overwhelmed by the thousands calling out and have been unable to monitor many away from work, jail records indicate.
The Correction Officers Benevolent Association — the union that lobbied Adams to dump the reform-minded Schiraldi — argued the doctor-check-in rule made no sense because it required people who are sick to leave their homes and possibly contaminate others.
Now, only officers out sick for three days in a row will be required to make an appointment with the department’s “sick desk” and provide medical proof they are ill.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction explained the sick-day change in a statement to THE CITY: “We have humanely adjusted our policy to align with the momentary medical issues that people deal with in day-to-day life, that don’t necessarily require a physician.”
“From the very beginning, COBA pledged to fight that policy and we never stopped,” the union said in a statement posted on Facebook Monday.
The union also tweeted about Townsend after this article was initially posted, bidding her “good riddance.”
Serena Townsend had one single mission- to serve as the puppet of a remote fed monitor hellbent on destroying the morale of our essential workforce by writing them up on frivolous charges. Good riddance! https://t.co/IYwdPTNOYl via @THECITYNY— COBA (@NYCCOBA1) January 5, 2022
Adams’ close ties to Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLC, a lobbying firm that represents jail workers, has raised questions about the future of chaotic Rikers Island and the beleaguered Correction Department.
When announcing Molina’s appointment in mid-December, Adams vowed to bring back solitary confinement for detainees who act in violent ways.
COBA has long opposed restrictions — such as excluding mentally ill people and adolescents — on the use of solitary confinement.
Molina did not respond to a request for comment on Townsend’s dismissal.
Rikers Island has been roiled by what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos,” with inmate deaths and self-harm incidents up, rampant absenteeism and low vaccination rates among officers, and bleak conditions at intake centers.
Some elected officials have called for the National Guard and President Joe Biden to step in. Two men died at Rikers late last month, bringing the toll for 2021 up to 16.
‘Competent’ or ‘Bad’?
As for Townsend’s dismissal, it comes after the federal monitor overseeing the Correction Department hailed her qualifications, calling her “highly competent,” in a court filing on Dec. 22.
Steve Martin, the monitor, noted she had “expertise” in the department’s use of force guidelines, investigation protocols, settlement options, and the city’s internal trial procedures at the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
“She has a demonstrated ability to work constructively with all stakeholders,” the court papers read. He added Townsend has also “demonstrated commitment to reforming the Department’s disciplinary process to ensure cohesive management of these issues.”
Her staying in place is “critical to the success of this reform effort moving forward,” the federal monitor said.
The three unions representing correction officers and supervisors disagreed, and all asked Molina to replace Townsend, according to correction sources.
“I spoke about her at length to the new commissioner stating how bad she has been to our staff,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association.
Townsend defended her work.
“I’m extremely proud of the work that I’ve done and maintained my integrity,” she told THE CITY, declining to say more about the change.
An advocate for incarcerated people expressed dismay at her ouster.
“It’s concerning that Deputy Commissioner Townsend’s removal was a top goal of COBA and this incoming administration capitulated,” said Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda in the Urban Justice Center.
“Although there were some improvements under her tenure, accountability was still insufficient. We are not going to get out of this crisis without far more accountability moving forward and a willingness to take a stand against the impunity COBA has long pushed for.”
DOC commissioners have a recent history of pushing aside top investigators who are opposed by the unions.
When Joseph Ponte took over at the start of the de Blasio administration in 2014 he replaced Florence Finkle with Michael Blake, a former NYPD official who was also a childhood buddy of former COBA President Norman Seabrook.
Finkle enraged the unions after she began to refer cases of excessive force and falsifying records for criminal investigation. Before her tenure, those cases were almost all handled internally. She also pushed to suspend offers without pay who were caught on video using excessive force.