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Editorial: Sheriff has no excuses for failure to follow state directives on jail

If you were the sheriff and a state oversight agency cited chapter and verse the serious deficiencies in the operations of your jail, wouldn’t it be the normal thing to try to get right with the law? And wouldn’t it be especially urgent if you were up for re-election in less than six months?

That’s not the way it works in Erie County. Here, the jail superintendent, Thomas Diina, who works for Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, is parsing the directives from the Commission of Correction and suggesting that maybe the oversight agency doesn’t understand the meaning of its own regulations.

In that tortured approach, the jail would be following the same obstructionist line it pursued in 2009 and 2010, when Howard and then-County Executive Chris Collins vainly sought to resist orders from the U.S. Department of Justice to improve operations following the suicides of several inmates. Howard, it would seem, still does not want to run his jails professionally.

The two recent directives from the Commission of Correction cite several reporting failures at the jail and order Howard and County Attorney Michael Siragusa to report by June 6 how they will fix that problem in the future. Those failures included four suicide attempts at the jail, the violent attack of an inmate against another inmate and the mistaken release of an inmate.

It would be tempting to give Howard the benefit of the doubt, at least regarding the suicides, had he not resisted so furiously the Department of Justice’s efforts to force the county to deal with the issues related to a succession of prisoners taking their own lives. In that light, it’s difficult to see this latest evidence of recalcitrance as anything but an effort to cover up the ongoing management failures of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department.

The Buffalo News called these issues to the attention of the Commission of Correction. Using the state Freedom of Information Law, The News found four inmates whose attempted suicides met the state definition for reporting, but which were instead labeled as “disturbances,” for which no state report is required. All should have been reported as suicide attempts, the commission concluded.

In response, the commission is now using its authority to try to change the behavior of Howard and Diina. If they don’t comply with its directives, the commission can go to court to force the issue.
The prospects of an easy resolution to this confrontation seem unlikely, given that Diina continues to insist  – presumably with Howard’s approval – that the incidents did not need to be reported to the commission.

Of course, that’s the same jail that misrepresented the fatal encounter in which a prisoner died after jailers tied a spit mask around his face, placed him face-down on a stretcher and refused to let emergency medical workers remove the mask. Upon review, the commission labeled that death as a homicide.

Howard and Diina should take a deep breath and comply with the demands of the commission. It will save them and the county a lot of unnecessary legal expense and, even more important, demonstrate an interest in improving the department’s performance. That would offer a welcome sign of maturity. But there is little in this operation’s history over the past several years to instill such confidence in any neutral observer.

Absent that demonstration, Republican Party leaders need to consider whether they want Howard to represent the party in November’s election for sheriff. It’s a discouraging thing when a top law enforcement officer shows disregard not just for the rules but for basic common sense.

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