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Editorial: The sheriff says he doesn't know — but he should know

Sergeant Schultz would have been proud.

In August, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard finally faced lawyers in the case of an inmate death at the Erie County Holding Center.

At his deposition, he answered “I don’t know” 68 times, evoking the memory of Schultz, the fictional "Hogan’s Heroes" character, whose regular punchline was that he knew nothing.

Except Howard is the sheriff — of a real county. Its citizens and especially the family of Richard A. Metcalf Jr., deserve real answers.

Back in 2012, Metcalf’s jailers tied a spit mask around his neck. They also pulled a pillowcase over his head, then denied him medical attention. Metcalf went into cardiac arrest.

Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Pettit Rieman, appointed to investigate the matter, allowed the clock to run out on a couple of potential criminal charges. She did offer that changes were needed at the Holding Center, “… even if it is as the result of the public civil trial and subsequent finding of civil negligence.”

The family was already pursuing the civil case. They wanted the sheriff to answer some questions, whose scope was limited through the efforts of the county’s defense team. The Metcalf family lawyers were restricted to asking only about the hiring, firing, supervision and training of his jail staff.

It turned into a near-impossible request. Howard responded “I don’t know” to questions about training programs within the Jail Management Division, about whether deputies are required to undergo the annual in-service training, about what is covered during the annual in-service training.

It’s true that the boss sets policy and others execute. Still, Howard should know who that someone is, but when attorneys asked who developed curriculum for the annual in-service training he responded: “I don’t know.”

It was a long slog just putting the sheriff in front of the family’s attorneys and longer, still, before the public had access to the transcript. That occurred only days ago, after attorneys for The News asked the judge to unseal the document, reversing the ruling he made to conceal them before the November election. Howard eventually won his fourth four-year term, perhaps because the public didn’t know how much the sheriff doesn’t know.

His lack of knowledge extended to the handling of mentally ill inmates. Metcalf was himself mentally troubled and was in the grip of a “psychotic episode when asphyxiated.”

Questions also centered on assessing inmates who might be suicide risks. Surely this sheriff should know at least that. After all, the Holding Center’s suicide rate was once five times the national average for county jails, a fact that helped precipitate a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department.

So it seemed a good sign when the sheriff answered in the affirmative when asked if the sheriff’s deputies are trained on suicide-risk assessment. But he didn’t know who trains deputies.

Jail administration is a prime responsibility of the sheriff. The county’s 2017 budget provided $124 million to the Sheriff’s Office, with nearly 80 percent of those funds dedicated to running the Holding Center in Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden. Howard — the man in charge, entrusted with a critical job by the people of Erie County — should know more about his responsibilities. But he doesn’t.

The Metcalf family and the public deserve better.

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