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Beleaguered New York City jails getting Tasers, mayor says

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at podium, discusses new safety progams Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, for NYC jails as Correction Commissioner Joseph Aponte, right, and others at Rikers Island look on. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Taser stun guns and airport-style body scanners are coming to New York City’s jails, purchases Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes will “de-escalate violence” in a correction system the U.S. Department of Justice has investigated for practicing brutality in violation of the Constitution.

The 20 Tasers, being deployed starting this month, will go to jail captains assigned to the Department of Correction’s emergency services unit, which breaks up fights, riots, attacks and other violence. The unit’s arsenal is equipped with chemical sprays, batons, vests and helmets.

Appearing with de Blasio at Rikers Island Thursday, Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the Tasers would be authorized during “smaller group incidents where inmates are very violent and out of control.”

“We don’t have to put hands on and wrestle them to the ground,” he said.

Once an officer activates a Taser — which sends electric shocks to the body via probes connected to wires — a mounted camera will automatically capture the use and save the video for later review.

Ruthie Epstein, an advocate with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the group is “deeply concerned” about the Taser announcement, pointing to Amnesty International research showing hundreds have died since 2001 from being shocked with the devices.

Epstein said she hopes the city develops and adheres to strict policies over their use. Ponte said Tasers would not be used on juveniles or pregnant women, among other restrictions.

Rikers is under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to fix what a 2014 report called a “deep-seated culture of violence” affecting guards and inmates.

In 2015, the city agreed to install a federal monitor to settle a lawsuit alleging undue violence on Rikers. The de Blasio administration has struggled, with varying degrees of success, to bring the violence under control. Contraband “finds” are up 63 percent in 2016 compared with last year, but slashings are up too, Ponte said.

“There’s nothing I’m going to say to you today that is popping any champagne bottles or declaring any mission accomplished,” de Blasio said at a news conference at Rikers, where about 7,000 people are locked up, most awaiting trial.

Tasers are not universal in jails nationwide. De Blasio spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said the devices are used in jail systems like Denver’s, Seattle’s and Albany’s. Tasers are not used at jails in Nassau and Suffolk counties, nor are there plans to do so, according to Nassau’s sheriff Michael Sposato and the Suffolk sheriff’s chief of staff Michael Sharkey.

Thursday at Rikers, one of the nation’s largest jail complexes, de Blasio met with guards who aired concerns over issues like violence and being required to work forced overtime.

The airport-style scanners, Ponte said, would do a better job of combating contraband like scalpels, drugs and cellphones from being sneaked in by inmates and visitors. But despite the periodic arrest of guards for smuggling, they will not be put through the scanners, because doing so would involve negotiations with their labor unions.

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