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Editorial: Sheriff’s Office must be held accountable for inmate's horrifying death

Again, the Erie County Holding Center is at the center of controversy relating to inept or indifferent management. This time it involved what a state investigation has labeled as a homicide. More changes are required, at least in policies and likely in leadership.

Richard Metcalf Jr. was a difficult prisoner, perhaps mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. He exhibited bizarre behavior before and after his arrest He smeared feces on himself and spat blood at jailers. He required special attention, but none that should have resulted in a gruesome death by asphyxiation. But that’s what happened in November 2012.

“Metcalf’s death was a homicide caused by the restraint methods used by the Erie County deputies,” according to a report by state Commission of Correction, which polices local jails in New York. The team of doctors found that “traumatic asphyxia with compression of the torso and neck” took Metcalf’s life.

Specifically, it says that deputies cut off Metcalf’s airway by knotting a mask around his neck to prevent him from spitting blood. They also laid him facedown on a stretcher with a pillowcase over his head.

In the end, the report blames poorly trained deputies for Metcalf’s death, but that’s putting it mildly. Not only did the deputies’ actions interfere with Metcalf’s ability to breathe, but they also prevented ambulance medics from turning him face up or removing the mask to examine him. This, even though the sounds of breathing faded, the commission said.

Thus, among the new safeguards the commission expects Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to impose is a rule prohibiting personnel from interfering with emergency medical crews. Imagine that a sheriff even needs to be told to enact such a rule. Howard, however, has yet to commit to the change.

Interestingly – unbelievably – none of the deputies remembered who tied the spit mask around Metcalf’s neck, the report said. They also tried to blame the ambulance medics for keeping the inmate in the prone position. If the Commission of Correction report is to be believed, that is simply false and is, thus, evidence of a guilty conscience.

The report demands accountability, and it suggests two paths. It has urged the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to begin a criminal investigation and for the U.S. Justice Department once again to examine the Sheriff’s Office for civil rights violations.

The Justice Department has had to investigate the jail before while it was under Howard’s control. Inmate suicides were frequent enough to attract the department’s attention, over the strenuous objections of Howard and then-Erie County Executive Chris Collins. In the end, the county agreed to the Justice Department’s demands and began a series of necessary improvements.

It seems clear that a new investigation is necessary. Not only did poorly trained jailers cause Metcalf’s death, according to the report, but they evidently have attempted to conceal their responsibility during the four years since he was killed.

Whether that results in criminal charges has yet to be determined, although the Commission of Correction report clearly suggests the possibility. At a minimum, though, it will require better training of deputies who demonstrably don’t know enough to allow emergency medical workers to save a dying man.

Indeed, such ignorance goes beyond training and to the fundamental question of fitness. Thus, questions of hiring standards should also become an issue. And the fact that these questions need to be raised at all once again calls into question Howard’s own leadership for the important job he holds. No deputy should ever think the boss won’t mind if some wretch in the jail is allowed to die.

In addition, video surveillance in the jail needs to be expanded. While video shows Metcalf being wheeled out of the jail – and showing no signs of resistance – the actions that caused his death occurred where no video recording is present.

Such video is what called a city jailer to account for the vicious beating of an inmate earlier this year. It not only protects prisoners from abuse, but jailers as well. There can be no reason not to expand its use other than an illicit wish for secrecy.

Jailers have some of the most miserable jobs imaginable. Inmates abuse them. Some throw urine. It’s difficult, stressful work and those who perform it deserve public support. But they also have to follow rules and rule No. 1 is do not kill.

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