Rikers violence puts Norman Seabrook on the defensive

Norman Seabrook, President of the Correction Officers Benevolent

Norman Seabrook, President of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), speaks on Thursday, April 3, 2014. (Credit: Bryan Smith / Bryan Smith)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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By now the region's radio listeners know the husky voice of New York City Correction Officers Benevolent Association president Norman Seabrook. On the union's frequent commercial spots, he bluntly poses the grim rhetorical question: "Without us, how safe would you really be?"

This Labor Day finds Seabrook, 54, of the Bronx as much a man in the spotlight, and on the spot, as ever, after nearly two decades heading COBA. Union officials have begun making it routine practice to send news media daily shorthand reports noting violent incidents in the jails on Rikers Island, which insiders at one time sardonically called the city's sixth borough.

A sample 24-hour period included one officer hospitalized, 16 inmates in a fight that prompted pepper spray to be used, and an officer splashed with excrement. A Seabrook ally said the aim is to "let people know these incidents are not all about us busting heads."

A recent U.S. Justice Department report highlighted frequent use of force against inmates as part of a wider "culture of violence" in the adolescent jail on Rikers and described beatdowns staged outside the range of video camera surveillance. A new mayor, Bill de Blasio, had already put the correction department under a new commissioner, Joseph Ponte, whose methods and reputation in Maine as a prison reformer drew an initially negative greeting from veteran Seabrook.

Seabrook, whose public roles included a stint on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, also criticizes situations slammed by the federal officials -- but, of course, in a way that broadly defends his 8,000 active members and blames systemic failure on the department's higher reaches.

Those in management, Seabrook said in a commentary, "have done almost nothing to account for the rising number of mentally ill inmates in the city jails, even though that is clearly a major factor in the increase in violence."

Political debate over Rikers goes on without end.

RELIC OR NOT:Larry Hanley, the politically focused Amalgamated Transit Union international president from New York City, disputes the idea that the labor movement is consigned to history. His weekend message: "Some people believe that unions are no longer necessary, but even a minimal understanding of the growing income inequality in our countries makes it abundantly clear that workers need to act forcefully now to stop the erosion of their ability to earn a living wage."