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‘Culture of Toxicity’ — Commission finds pervasive racism among NY court officers

October 16, 2020 David Brand
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An independent commission tasked with reviewing institutional racism in the New York court system detailed a “culture of toxicity and unprofessionalism” among court officers across the state in a report released Thursday.

The Equal Justice in the Courts task force, led by former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, interviewed hundreds of people in the New York legal-justice system, including judges, lawyers, clerks, court officers and litigants, over the course of four months.

Their work culminated in the extensive report highlighting institutional bias and racial and ethnic disparities throughout the court system. The most explicit accounts of racism in the report pertained to the conduct of court officers.

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“Although interviewees stressed that not all court officers behave in a hostile manner, almost every interview touched on what appears to be a culture of toxicity and unprofessionalism exhibited by court officers towards litigants, litigants’ relatives and attorneys of color,” the report states.

Multiple people described court officers using racial slurs, including the n-word, inside courthouses. One court officer sergeant called a group of Black teenagers the n-word in an elevator, according to a public defender interviewed by the commission.

Another court officer told the task force that his supervisor “ranted at a Christmas party about how Black people are lucky that they are allowed to be court officers in the first place.”

Court officers of color told interviewers that they did not feel comfortable coming forward to report the abuse for fear of being ostracized by their colleagues and union leaders. Court officers faced few consequences for their racist behavior, several interviewees said.

Even some judges interviewed by the commission said “they hesitate to report court officers, citing incidents where court officers have created a hostile environment for judges who they feel have criticized them,” the report states.

“One very senior judge confided that she is aware that some judges are afraid of reprimanding or correcting the misbehavior of certain court officers in their courtrooms,” the authors add.

The report also cited an investigation into New York State Court Officers Association President Dennis Quirk, who Black court officers in Brooklyn accused of fostering a “safe haven for racist speech and actions.”

Quirk did not respond to several phone calls and messages seeking comment.

Another union leader, Supreme Court Officers Association President Pat Cullen, did not respond to phone calls and messages seeking comment.

Unlike other sectors of the legal system, court officer demographics largely mirror the state’s overall population, the report found. The authors note, however, that court officers of color are generally concentrated at the lower ranks; the vast majority of supervisors are white.

The report provides recommendations for addressing the bias and racism that interviewees described. To start, the court system must establish mandatory implicit bias and cultural sensitivity training for judicial and non-judicial personnel, the report states.

“We perceive an equal if not greater need for more robust bias racial bias and cultural sensitivity training for non-judicial personnel, particularly the court officer community,” the commission authors wrote.

They also called on the Office of Court Administration to implement a social media policy to prevent and penalize racist or biased posts by court personnel — an issue that arose when a Brooklyn court officer posted a racist meme of President Barack Obama being lynched.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said OCA leaders “fully endorse this report and will proceed now to implement its recommendations.”

“The recommendations put forth by Secretary Johnson offer a tangible framework for a court system that truly reflects the diversity and inclusiveness of our communities, ensures the fair administration of justice and promotes the public trust,” she said.

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