The Editor Rockland Voice
September 1, 2016
We wish to direct your attention to the photo above which was taken during the 2015 election cycle. The people in the photo were surrounding Chief Richard Vasquez as he made the announcement that he was a candidate in the November election for Sheriff of Rockland County. The people in the photograph were all members of the Rockland County Correction Officer’s Union; some were members of the union’s executive board at the time.
Those whose faces are covered with a black circle have suffered extreme consequences for their public support of Chief Vasquez on that day as we shall describe in more detail below. For example, because he was exercising his right to support the candidate of his choice, one person who is in the photograph was taken aside by Sheriff Falco’s son, Sergeant Falco, who gave him the stare-down while remarking “Vasquez, huh?” That officer has since resigned. Such is the power of nepotism in the Corrections Department!
This is not the America protected by its constitution; this is political tyranny.
At the time the picture was taken, the Correction Officers’ union had pledged to endorse Richard Vasquez for Rockland County Sheriff. It was a bold step for the union to not endorse the current Sheriff, Louis Falco. However, this decision was made as a result of a union meeting, wherein union members elected to endorse Richard Vasquez on a vote of 69 out of 70 in attendance. The union leadership felt that they had to act in the best interests of the union members and their families. Morale was at an all-time low because the general opinion of Sheriff Falco was that he was treating the corrections officers unfairly, mainly due to a series of contractual violations that he implemented without regard for the officers’ rights.
Falco was constantly trying to break the contract without proper negotiations. An example of this would be when he moved a female officer to a shift that had no other female officers in order to avoid paying overtime. This directly contradicted the officers’ contractual ability to bid for shifts based upon seniority. Falco was able to accomplish this as the female officer would likely not object due to her probationary employment status. He then tried to rotate the remaining female officers to other shifts with staggered days off to accommodate the department without regards to their seniority. This also illustrates his blatant gender discrimination. Falco was willing to sacrifice the female officers without regards to their wellbeing.
Sadly, upon winning re-election, Sheriff Falco took immediate, radical and unprecedented steps in enforcing strict letter-of-the-law discipline within the correction officer ranks. He set course to demean, humiliate and financially harm any of the workers that took a public stance against his candidacy. We have decided to tell this story so that the residents of Rockland may know and understand who is in charge of THEIR Sheriff’s Department.
We never thought that this could happen in the present-day U.S.A., but we were wrong!
Through decades of fair labor negotiating, our union, just like many other civil service unions throughout the country, had set up defined ‘progressive-step discipline‘ agreements. These labor agreements were negotiated with and honored by all of the sheriffs who came before Falco. For the most part, they were even honored by Falco himself prior to winning his last election and prior to him realizing that he has lost the support of many who had previously held him in high regard and who had supported his election four years before.
Since November 2015, Sheriff Falco has made sure that a lot of heads have rolled. We submit that this was purely political retribution and we will outline why we believe so below.
Immediately after his November victory, Sheriff Falco started to vigorously “supervise” correction officers by scanning all of the records from the surveillance video cameras that are placed throughout the jail. Of the many cameras we have in the jail, Sheriff Falco paid a high level of attention to the ones that were set up in the suicide watch section where hours are long, the duty is tedious, and where it is very easy to find technical infractions of procedures.
Part of the suicide watch patrol includes having the correction officers enter their observations of the inmates in a log journal. The entries are made every fifteen minutes and account for the inmates’ actions that occurred during the previous fifteen minutes. It is monotonous work, but this is set forth by the New York State Commission of Corrections.
Officers on suicide watches have to maintain constant and continuous supervision of the inmates. Officers are required to note what the inmate is doing on a fifteen minute interval. On an overnight shift, the inmate may be sleeping for most of the time and the practice of officers who are continuously observing them is to bring their log books up to date, not on the exact required minute, but at a time which could be half an hour or even later. The logbooks are beside the officer who is recording them.
According to routine practice, sometimes 45 minutes can go by and the officer would then put three checks in the log noting ‘inmate lying on bunk‘. However, if an inmate’s condition or behavior changes, for example he has a medical situation occur or he is taken out of his cell, then the officer would record the exact time of such an event and what occurs because the log books are then critical pieces of evidence should anything untoward occur such as the inmate becoming involved in an altercation.
Typically on the overnight shifts, the officers are observing an inmate on a continuous basis for eight hours with only two short breaks, or ‘reliefs‘. If there is no change in an inmate’s status, completing the logbook entries at more variable intervals than on the strict fifteen minute requirement has been normal practice. In following this practice, it is clear that the officers are not falsifying documents or defrauding anyone by doing the logbook entries slightly before or after they are formally due. If we are being honest about this matter we could ask the current chief who has come up the ranks, or any retired uniformed staff member, whether or not this has indeed been the past practice. However, this is the practice that Sheriff Falco has cited when choosing to charge some officers (and not others) with felonies for “tampering with a legal document“.
Fairly frequently, due to housing unit activity or other situations, the officers may not make their entries at the specific time that the entry becomes due. When that has happened, the normal corrective action is that a supervisor who has noticed the late or missing entry would simply remind the officer to complete the log.
Beside the log book entry procedures, there are standard procedures where the Housing Officer (the person who runs the housing block) assists a Precautionary Officer who is assigned to watch multiple inmates. Having been assisted by the Housing Officer, a Precautionary Officer sometimes records that a required check was made. Yet Sheriff Falco has opted to charge officers with allegedly falsifying documents because the check that was recorded by the Precautionary Officer was not the check that the Precautionary Officer made himself. The policy for the procedure by which a Housing Officer and a Precautionary Watch Officer interact clearly states that “The Housing Officer is to assist the Precautionary Watch Officer as needed”. To charge that an officer who is being assisted by another officer is feloniously “falsifying documents” which accurately record that a required check had indeed been made is a further example of the sheriff’s outlandish vindictiveness.
In our opinion Sheriff Falco obsessively analyzed security videos of many correction officers on the suicide watch posts knowing that he was sure to find the minor technical infractions for which he was looking and with which he could then threaten dire punishment against the officers who had supported Vasquez.
Falco’s analysis of security videos went back months before the election with no previous questions having ever been raised by any supervisory officer that there was even the slightest problems with inmate supervision. Then, officers were threatened that if they did not resign they would face multiple felony charges with each missed or late check being a separate felony. Thus ten checks each made two minutes late on one shift would constitute ten felonies! Officers who consulted attorneys over these ridiculous threats of felony charges were told that it could cost up to $50,000 to defend someone against multiple felony charges and if a jury found anyone guilty of even one charge then the officer would have a felony record. A felony record, even if it only related to a late entry in a log, would mean future job prospects for officers who did not take the option of resigning would be very dim, even if they could sustain the court costs of going to trial. Facing that option, many officers of course resigned.
The key point in the above discussion is that NOT making log entries at the exact moment is NOT cheating or falsifying documents since the officer is watching the inmate every second. Cheating or falsifying the log would involve an officer leaving his post thus NOT observing the inmate for a period of time and then returning to his post and completing the log to indicate that the inmate had been continuously observed.
Anyone familiar with our work can attest that the practices Sheriff Falco now claims constitute felonies are the common practice in all other jails, fire departments, etc. Further, correction officers who are now retired from service in the Rockland County Jail after decades of service can state emphatically that they cannot recall a previous time when any officer was ever threatened with felony charges on such minor matters.
As we have described, when a problem with logs was noted the officer was usually advised by his supervisor to simply complete the log. Officers would routinely complete the missed or late checks and then the supervising sergeant would sign the log. However, Sheriff Falco went straight to a ‘nuclear‘ option to get rid of officers who supported Chief Vasquez as we will now describe.
When a supervisor believes the activity with completing logs was actually a wanton, repeated and deliberate failure of an officer to perform his duty there is a procedure of ‘official discipline‘ that is to be followed for such infractions. This procedure is as follows:
1) Verbal warning: If a procedural violation is observed, the supervisor shall caution the officer as to what has been noted.
2) Write up: On a second instance of noting the same violation, the supervisor submits a formal written infraction for the officer.
3) Suspension: The third occurrence of the same violation results in a suspension and, lastly
4) Termination: After a suspension fails to correct the behavior, termination may follow.
Officers who supported Vasquez were taken immediately to Step 4, Termination. Many did not get a case conference involving the Chief of Corrections, the officer and the Union Representative. Those officers who accepted retirement in exchange for the dropping of felony charges were required to sign a letter of release that they would not file a lawsuit against the Sheriff or his department. This begs the question of why Falco would drop upwards of 50 felony charges against an individual in exchange for retirement and a guilty plea to a single disorderly conduct charge and why would the District Attorney go along with such a blatant misuse of criminal statutes?
Given that there are cameras constantly monitoring the whole of the jail system of all officers at all times decades of operation of the jail premises, why is it that only since the last election were shotgun felony charges leveled by Sheriff Falco against certain corrections officers who campaigned for Chief Vasquez?
Because our union supported Sheriff Falco’s opponent, our rights as American citizens to participate in the politics of our county were usurped by a sheriff who, in our belief, acted from the small-minded motive of political revenge. The frightening thing today is that this same small-minded sheriff is still playing his game of converting departmental charges to felonies on several other officers who appear unwilling to bow to his behavior and his threats. It is thanks to Falco’s conduct that he and his office have now been served with several lawsuits to which we will provide our support and our testimony for their prosecution and Falco will continue to be on the receiving end of multiple more ‘Wrongful Termination‘ lawsuits.
We regret that the taxpayers of Rockland County will have to pay for the defense of these lawsuits but as American citizens we have the right to participate in the processes of democracy without fear of any retribution from government officials for exercising our constitutional rights.
Chief Vasquez, who ran against Falco this past November, was brutally maligned with the release of false information about his family. He too suffered greatly for stepping forward to challenge Falco. Vasquez has however continued at great personal risk to his own career to speak up against Falco’s behavior. He wrote about Falco’s actions as follows:
“Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco has stooped to an all-time low! These retaliatory acts will cost Rockland County tax payers millions of dollars in lawsuits. It is not a coincidence that all the corrections officers that supported me are being forced to retire or face frivolous charges. The question everyone should ask is simple; if these acts are true, why were they not investigated previously? Why are the supervisors who are supposed to be supervising the officers, not being held accountable, and charged with failure to supervise? Falco did nothing until after they endorsed me.”
Currently, there are at least three pending lawsuits against Sheriff Falco with allegations including gender discrimination, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and unlawful termination. By writing this letter, it is our hope that the residents and media in Rockland will demand answers to Sheriff Falco’s vindictive behavior. He has permanently harmed many families due to his gross acts of political revenge.
Are these the ethics and values that we expect our Rockland County Sheriff to be upholding?
Dary Blanks (Retired), Kate Liz-Johnson (State Parole), Secunda Crump (Retired), John Cocuzza (Resigned), John Coyle (Retired), Greg Esposito (Resigned), Richard Gomez (Retired), Larry Lans (Retired), Peter Langer (Disability), Frank Olivier (Retired), Nellie Tracy Jackson (Retired), Michael Lupo (Haverstraw Police Officer & Former Union President).
[Editorial Note: The views expressed in ‘Letters to the Editor’ are the sole opinions of the authors/contributors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the ROCKLAND VOICE editorial staff.]