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Editorial: Sheriff finally agrees to end evasions on attempted suicides

Oh, good. Leaders of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department have promised to  behave. Depressing as it is to note, that counts as some sort of victory in the administration of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

The issue is the habit of jail officials misreporting suicide attempts by inmates as “disturbances.” The difference: A suicide attempt has to be reported to the Commission of Correction, the state agency that oversees jails, while a disturbance does not.

Here’s how bad it got. One instance was falsely reported as just a disturbance because during it, an officer suffered a cut finger that required medical attention. That his finger was injured while the officer was slicing off a noose seems not to have figured into the decision-making.

Why bother fudging these issues? No one has figured that out for sure, but it’s hard to escape the notion that it’s about concealing incompetence.

The Erie County Holding Center was plagued by inmate suicides several years ago – enough that the U.S. Justice Department began investigating, to the chagrin of Howard and then-County Executive Chris Collins. Both made the federal investigation difficult, but eventually caved – reluctantly and without publicly acknowledging it – to the reality that they were responsible for a substandard operation that demanded reforms.

They agreed to those changes and, hallelujah, suicides and suicide attempts declined – or seemed to. Now, it turns out that the department was hiding those attempts from its overseers. They came to light only because Buffalo News reporter Matt Spina forwarded information on those falsely reported “disturbances” to the Commission of Correction, which then acted, giving the Sheriff’s Department until last week to indicate how it would comply with the commission’s directives, on pain of a lawsuit.

Thomas Diina, Howard’s Jail Management Division superintendent, finally responded, essentially giving in without admitting fault. While continuing to insist that the suicide attempts were, somehow, reported correctly, he concluded that “it is in no one’s best interest to prolong a dialogue on the directives.”

Least of all the interest of his boss, Howard, who is up for re-election this year.

It remains to be seen if Diina’s reluctant, last-minute report meets the commission’s requirements. But whatever it decides, it should have learned by now that what this Sheriff’s Department says it will do and what it actually does are liable to be radically different. Commission leaders need to pursue this with their eyes wide open.

To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan: Don’t trust. Verify.&T Bank.

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