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Editorial: Tolbert will revamp troubled Sheriff's Department

Editor’s note: These endorsements by The Buffalo News editorial board for candidates in the Nov.7 election are intended to aid voters in their evaluations of those seeking office. Whether you agree or disagree with our recommendations, we urge you to vote and take part in our electoral process.

It’s time for a change. The Erie County Sheriff’s Department and especially its jails have been in a state of uproar for years. Sheriff Timothy B. Howard says none of it is his fault, but the fact is that he is in charge and things aren’t going well.
Fortunately for voters, there is a fine alternative in Bernie Tolbert, a former agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office and former head of security for the National Basketball Association. Tolbert, who now works as a senior investigator at Erie County Child Protective Services, is skilled, informed and committed to providing the professional leadership that a law enforcement agency needs but that the Sheriff’s Department demonstrably lacks.

Anyone who has followed the Sheriff’s Department understands the problems there: Attempted suicides are misreported as disturbances; guards mistreat a mentally disturbed inmate, then file misleading reports about his death; Howard speaks at an overtly political rally in full uniform.

Howard defends his performance, but when, for example, he says the problem with reporting suicide attempts is the limitations of the form he must use, it doesn’t wash. Why isn’t every other sheriff’s department having similar issues?

Like any other citizen, Howard has the right to speak at a political rally, but that doesn’t make it wise. It demonstrates poor judgment for a top law enforcement leader to do so, regardless of his intentions, especially at a time when political divisions are raw and when the rally is likely to draw extreme elements – as this one did.

Against that record, Tolbert is a breath of fresh air. He not only brings two decades of high-level law enforcement to the table, but a commitment to greater transparency and accountability, two critical but missing components of Howard’s administration of the department.

Tolbert also noted the importance of being “more engaged with our community” so that there’s a “comfort level” when citizens reach out to the sheriff. In the county jails, including the Erie County Holding Center, Tolbert sees the need for additional guard training, in particular when it comes to handling inmates with mental health issues, more and more of whom are ending up behind bars.

Such was the case of Richard A. Metcalf, the prisoner who died after being mistreated by jail deputies. The case, Tolbert says, was “completely mishandled.” And the mishandling continues.

There can be little doubt, given the example of the past several years, that it’s time for Howard to find new interests. The only serious issue he has raised against Tolbert has to do with a pair of sexual harassment complaints that arose during his tenure with the NBA.

Anyone can wish those things hadn’t happened, but any fair reading of them still leaves Tolbert as by far the better candidate for an office that needs a seasoned and steady hand on its tiller. That’s Tolbert. We endorse him for sheriff.

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