In late April, while on my way to pick up some documents at court, I found myself reporting on the aftermath of a wild car chase in Brooklyn.By the time I arrived, the worst was over—NYPD officers had arrested two people on gun possession charges, and a schoolteacher's car was smashed up.
While I was there, I noticed a man in plainclothes, wearing a U.S. Marshals vest, his unmarked police vehicle sporting an illegal license plate cover. I took a picture, made a tweet, and thought little of it.
A few days later, I got a phone call from a tipster about the guy in the vest. "It's Captain Ellis," they said, hanging up before I could get more details. Department of Correction Captain Robert "Bobby" Ellis.
If Ellis worked for the Correction Department, what was he doing at the scene of a car chase in Brooklyn?
Two days after the Brooklyn chase, a man wearing a nearly identical outfit to the one Ellis wore can be seen in this TikTok video, milling about at the scene of what appears to be a law enforcement raid in Jersey City.
It turns out that in addition to his post at the City's Correction Department, Ellis does work for the City's Department of Investigation, as well as the U.S. Marshals New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force, a sort of freelance law enforcement arrangement to do police work all over the tri-state area. But why is a Correction captain running around town for the federal government, at a time when violence in NYC jails recently hit all-time record levels, and 25 people have died in custody since the beginning of last year, many of them for lack of adequate staffing?
A profile of Ellis earlier this year in the Irish Echo detailed his escalating appointments to various law enforcement task forces: He lends a hand to the NYPD as part of a joint unit with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives called SPARTA, which stands for Strategic Pattern Armed Robbery Technical Apprehension, and he's been a task force officer with the U.S. Marshals since 2015.
All this freelance work is lucrative. According to City payroll data, Ellis earned almost a quarter million dollars in 2021—a base pay rate of $114,000 plus an additional $130,000—making him the highest paid captain at the Correction Department and only $13,000 shy of what outgoing Commissioner Cynthia Brann pulled in during her last full year of service.
Ellis became a captain at the department back in 2006, his name appearing alongside his graduating cohort in the Correction Captains’ Association's newsletter (which also included a short article admonishing captains about speaking to investigators looking into their conduct).
The Department of Investigation and DOC confirmed the details of Elllis's employment, but referred further requests for information to the U.S. Marshals, who did not respond to requests for comment. NYPD spokespeople replied to a request for comment with a narrative of the April car chase, but included no detail on Ellis's involvement.
According to DOI spokesperson Dianne Struzzi, the City, not the federal government, generally pays for overtime incurred by City employees who do work for the feds.
"In Captain Ellis's case, DOC pays for his overtime related to his task force participation," Struzzi said. "DOI participates in law enforcement task forces because they support information-sharing and resource partnerships, which is the return for being a part of a task force. The federal government does not pay for task force participants' salaries or overtime."
According to DOI, the car chase in Brooklyn unfolded in front of Ellis and he stopped to assist, but it's not clear why he was at a raid in Jersey City. Insiders told me that it's common for corrections brass to play a role in law enforcement operations far beyond the walls of city jails. Ellis referred our requests for comment to the DOI.
"If we had a couple of really good investigators, sometimes they start looking at DOI as a stepping stone," explained Sarena Townsend, the former Deputy Commissioner for Investigations for the Correction Department. (Townsend was canned by Mayor Eric Adams earlier this year.) Townsend said she recognized Ellis's name.
"He was very involved in doing criminal investigations of DOC staff and things like that. I had heard he was involved with the marshals but I never really worked with him on that level," Townsend said.
Townsend was curious as to why Ellis would be on the scene of a wild (if perhaps routine) police chase in Brooklyn, unless DOC staff were involved.
"Maybe he's an eager beaver. In my experience with officers, a lot of times you get people who are very eager. They really want to get involved, they really want to be the hero," she said.
She added, "I would be surprised if there was a legitimate law enforcement reason for a DOI captain to get involved in a high-speed chase."
Attempts to reach the two people arrested in the Brooklyn chase and their lawyers were unsuccessful. Their names do not match anyone listed as an employee of the Department of Correction. The NYPD often releases details on the arrests of City employees.
Former DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said it was commonplace for DOC brass to be lent out for DOI work or marshals work, especially "if there was a drug smuggling operation smuggling drugs into—among other things—Rikers."
Is Ellis fighting the flow of drugs and contraband into Rikers by getting involved in chases and raids across the tri-state area? Or, as Rikers continues to spiral into crisis, is the DOC allowing its highest-paid and perhaps most capable captain to spend a lot of time and taxpayer money moonlighting on unrelated assignments? Official spokespeople did not say, but if you know the answers to these questions, feel free to drop us a line.