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Editorial: Howard needs to respond to questions surrounding suffocation of an inmate

And, still, no comment or action is forthcoming from the Erie County Sheriff’s Department. Almost a month ago, state corrections officials concluded that employees in Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s jail committed a homicide, and yet the county’s sheriff remains silent. What is he thinking?

According to the Commission of Correction, which polices local jails in New York, employees of the Erie County Holding Center killed an inmate, Richard Metcalf Jr., in 2012. Not only did they restrain a difficult inmate in a way that had to – and did – interfere with his breathing, but they also prevented emergency medical workers from taking steps to undo the damage they had caused.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the Holding Center’s top staff concealed details about the treatment of Metcalf when the commission began to ask about his grave medical condition. These are not signs of innocence.

Deputies at the jail had knotted a “spit mask” around Metcalf’s neck and pulled a pillowcase over his head, preventing him from breathing. They also placed him face-down on a medical examination table. They later claimed they didn’t remember which deputy put the mask on Metcalf, tried to blame the ambulance medics for keeping the inmate in the prone position and for a few days concealed the facts of Metcalf’s death from investigators.

And, yet, Howard is silent.

The Commission of Correction strongly recommended an investigation, either by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office or by the U.S. Justice Department as a civil rights matter. District Attorney-elect John J. Flynn Jr. has committed to such an investigation, though it would be unfortunate to wait another month and a half to investigate a homicide.

That is why the Justice Department should proceed immediately. Yes, there will be a new attorney general soon, but no credible leader would object to investigating so suspicious a death.

Just as important is Howard’s willful inaction, which screams for explanation. He has insisted, without providing any evidence, that the commission’s conclusions were wrong.  How so? What does he know that counters credible reports of a too-tight spit mask, a pillowcase over the head, lethal positioning, interference with medical personnel and an effort to conceal?

He needs to speak up. Howard is a public servant, accountable to the voters and to the law. He is the man in charge. Silence on this matter cannot be an option. Regardless of how difficult a prisoner Metcalf was – and he was terrible – an unanswered and credible allegation of death administered by jailers cannot be the consequence.

If the sheriff isn’t interested in helping residents understand what happened, then perhaps other, more interested members of law enforcement can.

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