Rod Watson: Sheriff Howard has a way with words – but not with truth - The Buffalo News
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Rod Watson: Sheriff Howard has a way with words – but not with truth

Sometimes, fancy verbiage is merely annoying.

Just ask those of a certain age who remember when pitchers had speed and control, not velocity and location; when running backs got a gain or a loss, not positive or negative yardage; and when inside the 20 was just inside the 20, before it became color-coded.

But at other times, words have life and death implications – as well as political consequences if you’re an elected official overseeing a jail system best known for its suicides.

Or make that "individual inmate disturbances," the fancy – and totally misleading – term Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard’s department uses to keep the state in the dark when inmates attempt to take their own lives.

In one especially egregious example at the Correctional Facility, an inmate tied a noose made from bed linen around his neck and attached the other end to a cell fixture. He was found passed out on the floor, ashen-faced and unable to breath before being revived.

Despite the fact that all of those involved called it a suicide attempt, the jail’s formal report to the state Commission of Correction, which oversees jails, used the obfuscating "inmate disturbance" language. That deliberate bureaucratic mumbo jumbo meant state monitors had no idea what was really going on in one of Howard’s jails, even though Erie County’s troubled lockups had been under state and federal oversight for years.

This is the same outfit that also told the commission it was an accident when one inmate fractured another’s skull last fall, even after the victim had warned jail staff that his attacker was out to get him.

But don’t get the idea that assaults are occurring in Howard’s jails. No, borrowing from the sheriff’s thesaurus, I’m sure this was just an example of "internal altercation resolution."

And who can forget the infamous flight of Ralph "Bucky" Phillips from the Correctional Facility, or the Holding Center inmate who walked out through an unlocked door, making it to the roof and causing a downtown commotion?

But don’t call these "escapes." My guess is they were just "unforeseen resident excursions."

It’s clear why the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t call suicide attempts what they actually are, or follow the state’s definition for reporting them. Nevertheless, sheriff’s officials claim to be mind readers, able to determine, for instance, that the unconscious, non-breathing inmate with the bed linen around his neck was just engaged in a ruse to get a cell upgrade.

In other words, the inmate was acting. Apparently, it was a role to die for.

But that’s par for the course for Howard’s department, which initially fought the state and feds at every turn to avoid forced improvement, and now has found a new strategy: hiding the truth.

Yet Howard continues to get re-elected, largely on the strength of his opposition to the horrendous SAFE Act. But given that most licensed gun owners are law-abiding people, enforcing the SAFE Act is a minuscule part of his job compared with ensuring the safety of those who enter the county’s jails.

When he seeks re-election this fall, Howard undoubtedly will bill himself as a law enforcement leader – which would just continue his office’s practice of misusing language.

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