A pattern of controversial deaths at the Erie County Holding Center is now emerging as a major topic in this year’s contest for sheriff.
Democrat Bernard A. Tolbert, the former FBI agent challenging Republican Timothy B. Howard, charged Wednesday that the incumbent’s “obfuscation and misinformation” about Holding Center deaths – including cases recently outlined in The Buffalo News – “hides the truth from the citizens of Erie County.”
“These deaths show beyond a shadow of doubt that there is fatal lack of proper training and oversight in the county jails,” Tolbert said in a conference call with reporters. “Deaths like these will continue until the hardworking men and women in the Sheriff’s Office are given the training and the leadership that they and we all deserve.”
Tolbert referred to Sunday’s editions of The News that reported on an inmate who hanged himself in the Holding Center earlier this summer. The story indicated that a prison employee phoned for an ambulance and took care not to use the words “suicide,” “suicide attempt” or “hanging” when speaking with a dispatcher.
Someone needs help for an “air obstruction,” the employee said, according to calls broadcast over emergency frequencies.
Some responders found the term needlessly vague, and Tolbert is now intensifying the criticism.
“It is an ugly truth,” he said. “Even though Erie County jails have a suicide rate of five times the national average of all local jails, many of the 22 deaths under Tim Howard were not suicides, tragic as suicide may be, and preventable as it may be in many cases."
“Several of those deaths were the result of beatings or negligence or unprofessional treatment,” he added. “One them is a confirmed homicide, and at least two others may be homicides at the hands of jail personnel.”
Tolbert said any citizen of Erie County should contemplate the possible dangers of being arrested and sent to the Holding Center.
“Think about that,” he said.
Howard dismissed much of his opponent's criticism and defended the practices of his office. He said any criminal justice professional is limited by attorney opinions that prevents discussion of details of many jail incidents when litigation is pending.
"Bernie used the same argument in his sexual harassment case," Howard said, referring to a complaint filed against Tolbert many years ago during his stint as vice president for security at the National Basketball Association.
The sheriff also stood up for how his staff has labeled perceived suicide situations over the years by presenting the hypothetical scenario of a 16-year-old arrested for driving while intoxicated and whose parents refuse to bail him out of jail. Actions perceived as a suicide attempt may really amount to a "manipulative gesture" aimed at gaining attention from the parents.
"That could mean a suicidal label for life," Howard said. "I'm not willing to label that individual suicidal when medical and mental health professionals are not saying that."
The sheriff also said that in the case cited by Tolbert in which alleged euphemisms were used to report an attempted suicide, his opponent should recognize the efforts of the jail staff.
"What possible benefit is there to concealing the fact they saved a life?" he asked. "When they prevent a suicide, it shows they are doing the job they were trained to do."
But Tolbert said the terms used in calling for an ambulance hide “the level of carnage that has occurred on Howard’s watch.” He also said the sheriff routinely refuses to provide any transparency on such issues.
“The horror of this situation is made worse by the sheriff’s repeated efforts to hide the truth,” Tolbert said.
The Democratic candidate, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Buffalo in 2013, pledged to make changes, including:
• A review of training procedures for deputies and other jail personnel to identify best practices for dealing with inmates who present unusual challenges due to drug influence or mental illness.
• A new level of jail transparency. “When something goes wrong in the jails, I won’t hide it from the public,” he said. “I will address bad news and take corrective actions immediately.”
• A review of workforce and overtime policies to ensure deputies do not work beyond reasonable physical and mental capacity.
• Investigate drawing on community expertise and knowledge of jail management policies by looking to law schools, mental health advocates, and community organizations to provide counsel and be a sounding board for improving conditions in the jails. He said he will also consider restoring the Corrections Advisory Board and other mechanisms to create regular dialogue.