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Editorial: Sheriff has no business taking part in a partisan rally

Erie County’s sheriff was at it again on Saturday, taking part in uniform in a political rally, a place the head of county law enforcement had no business. It was terrible judgment – again – on the part of Sheriff Timothy Howard.

Howard took a leading role in the Spirit of America rally that drew several hundred people to Niagara Square. That it was meant to support the presidency of Donald Trump is irrelevant to the issue. A Democratic sheriff promoting the agenda of a Democratic president would be equally wrong. It’s a failure to comprehend the scope of his public duties.

It’s not just that it was a political event, either, but one that attracted white supremacists, who have come out of the woodwork lately. No one has suggested that Howard sympathizes with their outlook, but their presence was predictable. Howard should be in the business of protecting, not diminishing, his department’s reputation for racial equality.

But Howard seems either unconcerned about management shortcomings in the Sheriff’s Department or wholly oblivious to them. Neither is appropriate, but whichever it is has produced repeated failures of leadership. On top of those failures, the sheriff inserted himself into a partisan political event. Erie County residents have a right to expect better of their sheriff.

This, after all, is the sheriff who took a temporary job at M&T Bank, showing up in his official car, sometimes for shifts during working hours. He was a co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign, a dubious assignment for a law enforcement leader who then confused his roles by working security at Trump’s April 2016 rally in Buffalo.

It’s the same sheriff who, four years ago, campaigned for re-election by promising not to enforce the SAFE Act, a gun control law passed in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The announcement was popular with at least some opponents of the law, but advertised a sheriff who would pick and choose which laws he would deign to enforce.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department was being run as though it were a part-time job instead of Howard’s public obligation. Twice recently the jail he oversees has been cited for violence that he denies. However, his department was less than forthcoming with details of the incidents.

Investigators are looking into the 2012 death of a jail inmate, Richard A. Metcalf Jr., who was restrained with a spit mask over his face and placed face-down on a stretcher. Jail officials misrepresented the circumstances of Metcalf’s subsequent death, prompting the state Commission on Correction later to label it a homicide and call for a criminal investigation. Howard has said through a lawyer that he will “vigorously defend” the deputies but hasn’t explained the initial deception.

The Commission on Correction also recently began an investigation into a vicious attack on one inmate by another after being alerted by The Buffalo News that the Sheriff’s Department had filed yet another misleading report about the grave injuries sustained by inmate Carl M. Miller. Jail officials had reported to the commission that Miller had been injured in an accident when, in fact, another inmate attacked him, fracturing his skull.

Why a false report was filed is, at this point, unknown, and no one has suggested that the sheriff played a direct role in it. What is clear from both these cases, though, is that jail officials do not worry that their boss will call them to account.

And now, entering gratuitous campaign mode again, Howard appears as a cheerleader at a political rally, in full uniform.

It’s disturbing that an elected law enforcement official doesn’t perceive – or doesn’t care about – the message this sends about his department, but that’s how it is right now in Erie County. Professionalism takes a back seat in Howard’s office.

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