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De Blasio seeks 'flexibility' to choose jail supervisors

Mayor Bill de Blasio on June 12, 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on June 12, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Lovekin

Rikers Island, the city jail under scrutiny for violent mistreatment of inmates, is in "a broken situation," and laws limiting the city's control over hiring Department of Correction supervisors must be changed, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.

"We're handcuffed by some laws in terms of how we choose personnel," he said at an unrelated news conference outside the United Nations. "And we are going to work to change those laws because we have to have the flexibility to bring in people who can help us really fix something profoundly broken."

Top positions in the city's jails system, from captains to chief of department, must be filled from existing uniformed ranks, according to municipal code, limiting officials' ability to conduct a broad search for agency leaders.

The mayor's remarks came a day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said published reports of "questionable promotions" and incomplete and inaccurate information provided to his office do "not instill confidence in us that the city will quickly meet its constitutional obligations."

Bharara released a scathing report in August of an investigation that found Rikers guards routinely violate the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. He stressed the need for institutional reform.

De Blasio said the city is ready to act. His appointment of a new correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, and the allocation of $32.5 million to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates were first steps, he said.

Bharara's office declined to comment on de Blasio's bid to change personnel laws. Department of Correction representatives and Correction Officers' Benevolent Association union president Norman Seabrook did not respond to requests for comment.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the proposal must be reviewed, but added that reports that information was withheld from Bharara are "cause for alarm and concern."

The council has scheduled a hearing about Rikers in the next two weeks and "will continue to exercise our strong oversight power," she said.

The New York Times reported Sunday that city investigators in 2012 recommended the demotion of two Rikers Island managers whose underlings produced statistics that misleadingly showed inmate fights were on a downswing. Instead, former Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro removed the recommendation from an investigative report, and the current commissioner, Ponte, promoted the managers.

De Blasio Tuesday did not answer a reporter's question about the sanitized report.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has called for the immediate suspension of the two officials: Chief of Department William Clemons and Warden Turhan Gumusdere.

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