After stopping a mentally ill Rikers Island inmate’s savage attack on a fellow detainee in November 2019, Correction Officer Charlie Bracey went home satisfied that he saved a life.
Bracey had taken Jorge Gutierrez out of Sean McDermott when Gutierrez hit McDermott 185 times with his casted arm in a holding pen at the Anna M. Kross Center. “I reacted as quickly as possible… I don’t see what I could have done differently,” Bracey told the Daily News.
But after the horribly injured detainee is paid a $9 million legal settlement by the city, Bracey nearly loses his job.
“Sometimes when the city pays, they want someone else to pay. And they wanted it to be him,” his attorney David Kirsch told a city administrative law judge who heard Bracey’s case and decided in late 2022 to restore him to his job.
Kirsch called the attack “an absolute Rikers Island systemic failure” caused by understaffing.
“All Charlie Bracey did was save this inmate, who could have died that day. He should have been commended by the city,” Kirsch said.
Bracey, now 53, began work on November 27, 2019 at the Kross Center, Rikers Island’s largest jail, assigned to his regular “pre-screening” position, responsible for moving detainees held in two Corrales to their appointments at the medical center. clinic.
He learned that no officer was available to work as a “clinic file,” a separate desk position that notifies detainees when it is their turn to be escorted to their appointments and watches over the two holding pens. Gutierrez and McDermott were in one of those pens.
As he had done when assigned to the two separate posts, Bracey warned his boss, Captain Mohammad Shanu.
Shanu told him to manage.
“The facility was always understaffed and I advised Bracey to do whatever he could to fill both positions,” Shanu later testified at Bracey’s departmental trial.
Staffing issues gripped the Department of Correction in the face of known absences and worker shortages that occurred during and after the Covid pandemic.
The number of uniformed DOC employees fell 6% in the years leading up to the pandemic, from 10,862 in 2017 to 10,189 in 2019. But there were about 2,250 more officers than detainees that year, figures released by the Comptroller’s Office show. the city. The daily average detainee population was 7,938 in 2019.
“We were short-staffed and I don’t think anyone realized how bad it was. People were quitting or retiring and there was a period where there were no classes at the academy to replace them,” Bracey said.
“It was becoming a regular situation,” Bracey said in trial testimony. “Supervisors, at this point, were playing the odds. Eventually, something was going to go wrong. I knew something was going to go wrong eventually.”
As Bracey went about his duties, Gutierrez began attacking McDermott in Holding Pen No. 2, hitting him in the head and face with the cast covering his right arm and smashing him into a metal railing.
Bracey was escorting the detainees to the clinic and was not immediately aware of the attack, he testified. The clinic is a large area and there were walls and doors between where Bracey was and the holding pens, Kirsch said.
More than a minute into the assault, Bracey was passing through the pens to pick up another detainee and saw the attack in progress.
He got Gutierrez out of McDermott. Bracey said he didn’t think anyone had stopped Gutierrez from attacking McDermott, but he believed his “involvement would have been sooner if he had taken over as dispatcher for the clinic.”
Bracey did not learn anything more about the incident until about a year later, in November 2020, when he received various disciplinary charges for allegedly failing to respond to the attack.
It wasn’t the first time Bracey had faced charges. In 2015, he was arrested for alleged smuggling when a multi-tool was found in his backpack. The Bronx district attorney’s office dropped the charges, but Bracey missed 15 compensatory days as a sanction in 2017. Bracey has said he left the tool in his backpack by mistake.
McDermott’s attorneys sued the city in Manhattan Federal Court in February 2021, alleging that Department of Corrections staff knowingly put the dangerous Gutierrez in the cell with McDermott and then failed to protect McDermott from the heinous attack, the records show. court records.
Another year passed. On February 22, 2022, during a pretrial conference in the Gutierrez assault disciplinary case, the Department of Corrections offered Bracey a plea deal of 25 lost vacation days. She agreed to settle for 18 lost vacation days.
The agreement was formally signed by attorneys for the Department of Correction and then by the department’s deputy commissioner for trials.
It then landed on the desk of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina.
Meanwhile, on March 15, 2022, McDermott settled his lawsuit against the city for $9 million, one of the largest settlements of its kind in the city’s history.
In April 2022, Molina rejected Bracey’s plea deal without a written explanation and insisted that Bracey should be fired.
In order for Bracey to save his job, he had to go to trial.
“They wanted to show that they did something,” Bracey said. “But I am the only breadwinner for my family. My wife had to leave her career in education to take care of my daughter. So, she was very stressful. You think you are about to lose your livelihood.”
Bracey’s trial before Jonathan Fogel, a judge with the city’s Office of Administrative Hearings and Trials, began Sept. 22 and continued on three dates in October and November.
“This is a really simple case. Can someone be in two places at the same time? I present no. And that is why this man is not guilty,” Kirsch said in his opening statement.
During the trial, the three Department of Correction attorneys assigned to the case relied on surveillance video of the incident and called a single witness, Jason Walker, a city corrections officer and investigator with six years on the job.
“Officer Bracey did not respond quickly enough to stop the threat or prevent inmate McDermott from being suffocated or assaulted,” Walker testified.
But at a key moment, Walker admitted that he did not interview all of the responding officers or fully understand the difference between the two publications, the trial transcript shows.
The case generated almost second-by-second analysis of the security video.
Lawyers for the Department of Corrections said the beating went on for one minute and 17 seconds before Bracey intervened.
But Kirsch used the video to show that Bracey was able to intervene 29 seconds after first noticing the attack “in the corner of his eye.”
Department of Corrections attorney Nicole Tartak claimed in her closing statement Nov. 10 that Bracey was slow to enter the cell and made a half-hearted effort to separate the two men.
“What the court observed in that video is an officer who saw a deadly encounter and chose inaction. Period,” Tartak said.
But the judge sided with Kirsch’s claim that Bracey acted in 29 seconds, not the one-plus minute claimed by the Department of Corrections.
In his closing, Kirsch called the Department of Corrections’ investigation “lazy and incompetent” and used a swear word to suggest the department was using Bracey as a scapegoat after having to pay McDermott so many millions.
“I don’t want to swear, but this case is a bunch of bullshit, that’s really what this case is,” Kirsch said in court. “That’s really the only way I know how to characterize it.”
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Judge Fogel on December 29 recommended dismissal of the charges.
“(Bracey’s) actions helped save McDermott’s life and prevented serious injury,” Fogel wrote. “Of the three officers present inside the cell, (Bracey) did everything possible to de-escalate the assault. … He is an experienced officer who used the best judgment on him at the time.”
On February 7, 2023, Molina signed Fogel’s decision without comment. No penalty was imposed, which means that, in the end, Bracey did not lose vacation days or suffer any other punishment.
Department of Correction officials did not respond to a series of questions centering on why Molina sought to fire Bracey.
No one else was charged or any official held accountable for the understaffing that gave Gutierrez the opportunity to beat McDermott to near death and put Bracey’s career on hold for three years, Kirsch said.
Now free of the disciplinary case, Bracey works in the cashier’s office at the Kross Center while waiting for a ride back to work at the clinic where he was once stationed.
“I felt very relieved. The decision showed how much attention the judge was paying attention to every word that was said. I felt that I was treated fairly at trial,” Bracey said.