Bernie Tolbert Statement on Deaths in Erie County Jails Under Tim Howard

I want to thank the Buffalo News and reporter Matthew Spina for the public service of publishing on Sunday the definitive list of 22 Erie County inmates who have died since Tim Howard became sheriff in 2005.

The most recent of these deaths occurred in July of this year. Now we know with certainty the level of carnage that has occurred on Howard’s watch.

On Monday, the News followed up with a report on how the Sheriff’s Office continues to use evasive terms to describe suicides, even after it has been reprimanded by the State Commission of Correction.

In the most recent reporting, The Sheriff’s Office was found to call for ambulances for apparent suicides by referring to them as “air obstructions,” “taking care,” to quote the News story directly, “not to use the words suicide, suicide attempt or hanging when speaking with a dispatcher.”

I also want to thank Jean Dickson, a private citizen and former university librarian, who has given her time and effort push the Sheriff’s Office to be more honest and accountable about its treatment of inmates.

These efforts pull back the curtain on Tim Howard’s pattern of obfuscation and misinformation, which hides the truth from the citizens of Erie County.

It is an ugly truth. As Matt Spina’s reporting shows, even though Erie County jails have a suicide rate of 5 times the national average of all local jails, many of the 22 deaths under Tim Howard were not suicides, tragic as suicide may be, and preventable as it may be in many cases.

Several of those deaths were the result of beatings or negligence or unprofessional treatment. One them is a confirmed homicide, and at least two others may be homicides at the hands of jail personnel.

Think about that.

Imagine that you, or your son or daughter have been arrested on drug charges. You are taken to the Holding Center to await a bail hearing or a trial.

Remember, this is not a state or federal prison. It is a holding center where the average length of stay is a few days. You have yet to be convicted of anything.

You experience a medical problem, perhaps a heart ailment, but the medical attention provided by the Sheriff’s Office is “grossly incompetent” – to use the term in one official report. You don’t get appropriate care and you die.

That is what happened to David Liddick according to the State Commission of Correction.

Or someone in your family experiences an acute mental health episode.

Maybe it’s your nephew.

Sheriff’s deputies arrest him in a wildly irrational state stumbling around the meat locker of a restaurant.

At the Holding Center, he is subdued and restrained with a spit mask that is tied tightly—and improperly — around his neck. Then, even though it is certainly not a procedure recommended in any training manual, a pillow case is placed over his head while he is being held face down. He dies from asphyxiation.

That’s what happened to 35-year old Richard Metcalf.

These deaths show beyond a shadow of doubt that there is fatal lack of proper training and oversight in the county jails.

Deaths like these will continue until the hard-working men and women in the Sheriff’s Office are given the training and the leadership that they and we all deserve.

The horror of this situation is made worse by the Sheriff’s repeated efforts to hide the truth. This is demonstrated by Jean Dickon’s dogged work. In March, Ms. Dickson sent a Freedom of Information Law request to the Sheriff asking for a full accounting of deaths in the county jails during his tenure so far.

In June, the Sheriff replied with only a partial list of 12 suicides, claiming he could not disclose further information because it would be an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

This response is both appalling and absurd. It’s appalling that the Sheriff would refuse a full accounting and it’s absurd that he would claim to be protecting the privacy of the deceased when their deaths are part of the public record.

The episode fully illustrates why Tim Howard’s stewardship is a disgrace and an embarrassment. Both Ms. Dickson’s FOIL request and the Sheriff’s response have been attached to a written copy of my statement and are available on my website.

Of course, it is not enough simply to say Tim Howard is an embarrassment and he must go. What’s needed is an overhaul of the way the jails are run and a new style of leadership in the Sheriff’s Office. That is why I am running.

I am running for Sheriff to restore pride and professionalism in the department. I intend to turn it around. I will begin my administration by doing four things that are not being done now:

1. I will immediately institute a top to bottom review of training procedures for deputies and other jail personnel. We will identify the best practices for dealing with inmates who represent unusual challenges due to drug influence or mental illness. We will bring in training experts from across the country. And we will get it right.

2. I pledge today, and I will repeat this pledge on the day I am sworn in as sheriff, to be transparent and accountable about what goes on the jails to the people of Erie County no matter what happens. I will publish a clear and legible budget so everyone knows precisely how we are staffed and how we spend the people’s money. More importantly, when something goes wrong in the jails, I won’t hide it from the public. I will address bad news and take corrective actions immediately.

3. I will review workforce and overtime policies to make sure that our deputies are not working beyond reasonable physical and mental capacity. Policing is a dangerous, stressful and exhausting business. When you push personnel to their physical limits and beyond, you invite problems. I will make sure that the hard-working men and women of the Sheriff’s Office have humane deployment and overtime rules; we will not push our people to the max.

4. I will find new ways to draw on community expertise and knowledge of jail management policies by looking to the law school, mental health advocates, and community organizations, to provide counsel and be a sounding board for improving conditions in the jails. As part of this program, I will look at the idea of restoring the Corrections Advisory Board and other mechanisms to create regular dialogue between the sheriff and the people of Erie County.

I will have more to say in the coming weeks about my ideas for dealing with the opioid problem and rising street crime, including how to deal with these problems when they manifest themselves among inmates in the county jails.

But let me close for now by saying that the shame of inmate deaths in the county jails must end and Tim Howard must go. He has botched the job and botched it badly. I am determined to be the agent of change our county yearns for to end this embarrassment and remove this stain from our reputation