Tolbert Calls for Reinstatement of Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board

Buffalo, NY September 5, 2017—With community leaders by his side, Bernie Tolbert, Democratic candidate for Erie County Sheriff, today called for the county legislature to reinstate the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board.

The board, composed of community leaders from mental health, legal, government, and prisoner advocacy organizations, was created by the legislature in 2010 following an investigation into the mismanagement of the Erie County Holding Center by the U.S. Justice Department. It was effectively suspended in early 2014 when it was downsized by the legislature and vacant seats were left unfilled.

According to Tolbert, the purpose of the board was to advise the sheriff and legislature on best practices and improvements in county jail management.

“In light of 22 inmate deaths, including not only suicides but deaths by beating, abuse and neglect, a confirmed homicide, an apparent additional homicide now being litigated, a lawsuit against the County by the U.S. Justice Department, and an investigation and reprimand by the New York State Commission of Correction for hiding information about inmate deaths – not to mention the enormous cost to taxpayers of litigating and settling private lawsuits  — Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard has lost the confidence of the public to properly manage the jails,” Tolbert stated. “Having a fully functioning citizens advisory board will help provide constructive ideas for improving jail management and informing the public of efforts to make things better.”

“The residents of Erie County should know that this board is voluntary and costs the county nothing,” Tolbert continued.  “Neither does it represent another layer of government bureaucracy. The jails already have sufficient government oversight at the county, state and federal levels. Those agencies have found Sheriff Howard sorely lacking in his responsibilities. This board will provide advice as we fix the jails and be a conduit of information to a community that has been kept in the dark.”

Tolbert further stated, “It is critically important that the reinstated board comprise representatives from the community organizations and interests that made up the board when it was first empaneled in 2010. It does no good for it to be a board composed only of government officials. What is needed is community input.”

Nan Haynes, professor emerita, SUNY Buffalo School of Law and a member of the defunct corrections board said, “I am delighted that Bernie Tolbert has called for the reinstatement of the board, which brings together citizens with divergent views on policing and corrections to find ways to improve the inhumane and deadly conditions in our county jails. Bernie will listen to the entire community and offer the kind of transparency and accountability that is so badly needed in the sheriff’s Office.”

Rev. Eugene Pierce, former assistant superintendent Erie County Correctional Facility, and a member of the defunct corrections board said, “I applaud Bernie’s call for the reinstatement of the Community Corrections Advisory Board, which is an effective conduit between the community the jail administration, and provides timely suggestions for how the jails in our county can be improved. Moreover, it gives the community confidence its concerns will be addressed.”

Attorney Joel Kelemen, a member of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild said, “Our jail system, like our other democratic institutions, has to be accountable to the community. It must operate with the understanding that the people in jail will someday be released, and that the community benefits by lowering the recidivism rate. The Erie County Corrections Advisory Board, which is comprised of community leaders from many disciplines, should be viewed an essential part of administering the holding center, and the advice of the advisory board should be welcomed, not excluded.”

Ken Colon, Coordinator of the Buffalo Urban League’s Out of School Youth Program, said, “We are committed to collaborating with the next sheriff to find ways to improve conditions at the holding center. We welcome his commitment to exploring ways to provide individuals who lack a high school diploma the opportunity to pursue their degrees. We believe it is important to provide county jail inmates with resources and counsel for finding employment, housing, and health care resources. The advisory board can play a big role in that effort.”

Debora Hayes, Area Director for CWA District 1, said, “Every resident of our county deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but Sheriff Howard has demonstrated the opposite belief in his management of county jails. We are dismayed by Howard’s lack of accountability to the community he is supposed to serve. We are proud to support Bernie Tolbert because of our shared commitment to civilian oversight in addressing the problems with Erie County jails. Accountability and oversight of law enforcement are critical in this era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts people of color.”

Community leaders joining Tolbert in calling for reinstatement of the advisory board included Karima Amin (People are Prisoners Too), Lavonne Ansari (Community Health Board), Ken Colon (Buffalo Urban League), Bruce Covert (American Civil Liberties Union), Debra Hayes (Communications Workers of America), Nan Haynes, (SUNY Buffalo School of Law emerita), Joel Kelemen (National Lawyers Guild and WNY Law Center), Rev. Eugene Pierce (frm. Asst. Superintendent, EC Correctional Facility).
About the Erie Community Corrections Board (as stated on the Erie County Legislature’s website):  The purpose of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board is the discussion of corrections facilities programs and services to offer suggestions and advice for the improvement of such programs at the Erie County Correctional Facility and the Erie County Holding Center. The Advisory Board may undertake functions and activities intended to provide advice and suggestions to:

  • Improve the programs and functions of the Jail Management Division and the County Correctional Facilities
  • Allow public comment on the activities associated with the Erie County Holding Center and Correctional Facility
  • Make formal recommendations to the Erie County Legislature, Erie County Executive and the Erie County Sheriff on the comprehensive plan for programs and services at the Correctional Facilities in Erie County, complete with a budgetary analysis and identification of possible sources of funding for initiatives that require additional funding not specified in the County’s budget.
  • Receive complaints regarding the Correctional Facilities from interested parties and refer such complaints to the proper official in the office of the Erie County Sheriff for investigation.

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

Jean Dickson’s FOIL Request to Erie County Sheriff’s Office and Reply

March 28, 2017

Erie County Sheriff’s Office
FOIL Request
Attention: Chief John W. Greenan
10 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14201

Dear Sir:

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), Article 6 of the Public Officers Law.  I will pay any reasonable fee incurred in connection with the processing of this request.

I hearby request all records from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, the Erie County Holding Center, and the Erie County Correctional Facility pertaining to the deaths by suicide or other forms of violence of inmates in either facility during the years 2005 to the present (2017), including names and dates, including those who died in hospitals or elsewhere as a direct result of such violence.

Section 3 of Article 89 of the Freedom of Information Law requires that an agency shall “within five business days of receipt of a written request reasonable described, make such record available tot he person requesting it, deny such request in writing, or furnish a written acknowledgment of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied.”  Accordingly, I request a response as soon as possible and look forward to hearing from you within the time specified by law.

If there are any fees for copying the records requested, please supply the records if the costs do not exceed $50.  If few exceed $50, I reserve the right to review the documents that respond to the request in person so that I may select only those documents that I want photocopied.

If any portion of my request is denied, please inform me in writing of the reason(s) you believe the records are exempt from disclosure and provide the name and address of the person or department to whom an appeal should be directed.


Jean Dickson

The Sheriff’s response to Jean Dickson’s FOIL request.

Date: Mon, Jun 5, 2017 at 10:43 AM
Subject: Suicides and attempts
To: Jean Dickson

Pursuant to your FOIL request please find an excel spreadsheet detailing the number of suicides and attempts at the ECSO.  After consultation with the County Attorney’s Office it was determined that releasing incident reports detailing suicides or attempts would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of the inmate.

It should also be noted that pursuant to the New York State Retention Schedule, indecent reports are maintained for a period of only 6 years.


Year Suicides Attempted Suicides
2005 2 2
2006 0 4
2007 2 10
2008 0 15
2009 1 13
2010 3 7
2011 2 4
2012 1 1
2013 0 0
2014 1 1
2015 0 4
2016 0 0
2017 0 2

A Conversation About Gun Violence Part II

In Part 2 of our series “A Conversation About Gun Violence,” Bernie Tolbert sits down with Murray Holman from the Stop the Violence Coalition and Paul McQuillen from New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to talk about the difference between legal and illegal guns on the streets of  Erie County.

A Conversation on Gun Violence – Legal vs. Illegal Guns

In Part 2 of our series "A Conversation About Gun Violence," Bernie Tolbert sits down with Murray Holman from the Stop the Violence Coalition and Paul McQuillen from New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to talk about the difference between legal and illegal guns on the streets of #ErieCounty#tolbertforsheriff

Posted by Bernie Tolbert for Erie County Sheriff on Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville Tragedy

The horrible events in Charlottesville remind us how vulnerable our democratic society can be. that our sense of community is fragile. It is all too easy for a few Nazis and racists to set neighbor against neighbor. We have to be always on guard against hate, even here in the City of Good Neighbors.

As Sheriff, I will never lend the badge and uniform to political rallies that promote hate. I will work with every neighborhood and community in Erie County to make sure we treat each other with dignity and respect even when we disagree over politics. And I will make sure that the Sheriff’s Department is trained in the latest best practices for keeping the peace at political rallies.


A Conversation About Gun Violence Part I

In this first of a four-part series, Bernie Tolbert, Democratic Candidate for Erie County Sheriff, discusses the root causes of gun violence with Paul McQuillen, Upstate New York Coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Murray Holman, President of Stop The Violence Coalition.

"A Conversation About Gun Violence" – Upholding the Law | Bern…

In this first of a four-part series, Bernie Tolbert, Democratic Candidate for Erie County Sheriff, discusses the root causes of gun violence with Paul McQuillen, Upstate New York Coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Murray Holman, President of Stop The Violence

Posted by Bernie Tolbert for Erie County Sheriff on Thursday, August 10, 2017

Left and Right Agree on Reforming Bail Practices

This opinion piece by Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris calls for reforming bail practices that unfairly penalize the poor in favor of using factors other than money to determine how long someone must spend in jail after arrest and before trial.

It would be good to know how many of the 22 inmates who have died in Sheriff Howard’s jail were unable to make bail for lack of funds, thereby criminalizing poverty.

When elected sheriff I will support this bi-partisan approach to better law enforcement practices and look for ways to advance them further.

Transparency, Accountability and the Need for Change

The grim tally of deaths in Erie County jails has increased again with the confirmed suicide of a reportedly distraught inmate. We don’t yet know the circumstances, why, apart from being held on “drug charges,” the deceased was incarcerated, or whether he had prior arrests or known mental health issues.

This trend and the lack of a real plan to address it must change. It must change now. It is long past time for Tim Howard to go. That’s why I am running for Sheriff. I will bring the change we need.

What is especially troubling about this latest death is the sheriff’s refusal to release to the public detailed information about the circumstances of the tragedy. The lack of transparency and accountability is part of the dysfunction and mismanagement of the county jails under Tim Howard, which continues to have tragic and unjust consequences for our community.

There is no more damning indication of mismanagement and dysfunction than unnecessary and negligent death. The manager of any other operation with Tim Howard’s track record — a coach, a store manager, the operator of an amusement ride for children—-would have been dismissed for incompetence long ago.

Sheriff Howard talks of the new measures he’s adopted in the jails and speaks of plans to improve the handling of inmates with drug or mental health problems. But how many deaths must the people of Erie County tolerate before making the necessary changes?

It is time for more than new measures and plans that adjust things on the margin of the problem. Our community deserves wholesale change in the culture of managing the county jails. I offer that change through an entirely new approach based on my experience as a senior official in the FBI and a private security executive for the NBA and major corporations, as well as my training as a social worker.

1)     Provide better training for deputies and staff in dealing with drug users and those with mental health issues.

2)     Improve monitoring of inmates with mental health challenges, suspected or already identified.

3) Enhance the presence of mental health professionals in the jails capable of assisting deputies and staff in making proper assessments of individuals and providing the correct care.

4) Immediately institute a policy of public transparency and accountability. No more mysteries about what is happening in the jails. No more sweeping bad news under the rug or dismissing tragedies by saying, “these things happen.”

5)  Above all, change the culture in the jails. The sheriff needs to be present at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility on a regular basis. He needs to lead. The sheriff needs to provide training and moral support to the staff and needs to report to the public how, as a team, the jails are being managed.

Without that level of involvement on the part of the sheriff, the county jail system will continue to fail our community and be a national disgrace to Erie County.

Tim Howard must do better, and so must we.







Erie County Holding Center Deaths Continue to Rise

The grim tally of deaths in Erie County jails has increased again with the apparent suicide of a reportedly distraught inmate.

Still frame from surveillance video inside Erie County Holding Center shows deputies and medics wheel inmate Richard Metcalf strapped to a gurney, face down with a pillow case covering his head on Nov. 28, 2012. Metcalf did not survive.

We don’t yet know the circumstances, why the deceased was incarcerated, or whether he had prior arrests or known mental health issues.

What we do know is that this brings to 22 the number of deaths in Erie County jails and prisons on
Tim Howard’s watch. The Holding Center and the
Correctional Facility have become houses of death.

This trend and the lack of a plan to address it must change. It must change now. It is long past time for Tim Howard to go. That’s why I am running for Sheriff. I have a plan and I will bring the change we need