As Bernard A. Tolbert travels Erie County this fall in his campaign for sheriff, he sports a lapel sticker that simply reads “22.”
The sticker works.
Just about everyone asks Tolbert what it means, and he immediately replies that "22" represents the number of inmates who have died in Erie County jails on the watch of his opponent – Republican incumbent Timothy B. Howard.
It was all very much on the minds of those gathering at the Amherst Senior Center a few days ago. Tolbert attended a League of Women Voters forum before a packed house that morning (Howard did not accept the invitation). Tolbert’s emphasis on a jail death rate he claims far exceeds normal hits home with some voters.
“I’ve had enough of these mistakes from Howard,” said Anthony Marconi, who was anxious to hear Tolbert address the gathering. “Every time you turn around someone is getting killed there, and that’s unacceptable.”
Along with the credentials accumulated throughout a long career in law enforcement – he's the former special agent-in-charge of the Buffalo FBI who also held high level private sector security posts –Tolbert catapults conditions in the Erie County Correctional Facility and Holding Center to the top of his issues list. At the Senior Center, he tells the hundreds gathered that conditions like those surrounding the death of inmate Richard Metcalfe — who died in 2012 after investigators said he was improperly fitted with a spit mask — will not happen again if he is elected on Tuesday.
Jail deputies will receive proper training and be made aware that Holding Center deaths just should not happen, he says everywhere he goes.
“I have a master’s degree in social work, and so I know how to treat people with respect and dignity,” he said. “Everyone who comes in contact with us should understand they will be treated well.”
Will suburbanites care?
Tolbert, 69, is the former special agent-in-charge of the Buffalo FBI. He also held top security jobs with Coca-Cola, HSBC Bank and the National Basketball Association. Since retiring from those jobs and returning to his native Buffalo several years ago, he has entered the political arena by challenging Mayor Byron W. Brown in the 2013 Democratic primary and running for the Buffalo Board of Education in 2015. Both efforts were unsuccessful. He currently works as a senior investigator with the county's Child Protective Services division.
Now he takes on Howard, a popular former inspector in the State Police who gained a majority of the vote against two well-financed opponents in 2013. As a stream of stories in The Buffalo News outline deaths and injuries in Erie County jails, Tolbert says he is running to overhaul the system.
“The overriding issue in this election is the complete lack of leadership, and that has resulted in 22 deaths,” he said, extending his criticism to what he calls Howard's ignoring the opioid crisis as well.
Yes, Tolbert says, an adversarial relationship naturally exists between jail personnel and inmates. Deaths will happen. But he says those entering the jail system should be assured of something basic: You will not be harmed.
“As sheriff you have to set that tone and not trample on someone’s civil or human rights,” he said. “We will treat them as people.”
Some observers say Tolbert’s message will not resonate in the suburbs, where most Erie County voters reside and from where most of Tuesday’s vote is expected to emanate. Sympathy may not exactly overflow in some suburban areas for inmates behind bars.
“There’s some truth to that,” Tolbert says. “But people in the suburbs are also concerned about the opioid crisis or that tax dollars are used to settle all these Holding Center claims.”
His campaign literature claims the county will face $4 million in damages once all jail claims are settled.
Tolbert also points to myriad other reasons why he thinks Howard should be replaced. The sheriff has ducked candidate forums and debates like the traditional affair hosted by students at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, he has failed to adequately confront the opioid crisis, and he caused controversy by – while in uniform – addressing a political rally that featured white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers.
“I suppose he has the right to speak,” Tolbert said, but added that he would avoid such a role that divides the community rather than brings it together.
But Tolbert also must face a controversial lawsuit that also dogged him during his 2013 run for mayor. During his eight-year stint at NBA headquarters in Manhattan, he was named in a pair of lawsuits accusing the league of ignoring repeated warnings that female employees were victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The candidate emphasizes he has never been personally accused of any inappropriate behavior, and he denies all such accusations.
But while chief of NBA security, he also was named in a lawsuit for making demeaning comments about women and passing over a female employee for promotion. The league confidentially settled the suit rather than fight it – over Tolbert’s strenuous objections.
Tolbert says he has never acted in the way he is accused of throughout his long professional and volunteer career.
Howard’s first television ads claimed women could not trust Tolbert, and ran just prior to a new heightened awareness of sexual harassment issues following revelations linked to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Now Tolbert continues to deny the accusations, just as he has whenever the issue has arisen in either the Buffalo or New York City press.
“I’ll say it again. I have never, ever in my personal or professional life been charged or accused of sexual harassment,” he said.
He acknowledged displaying a controversial image of a woman, as outlined in one of the suits, during an NBA presentation. He says he would not do it again but was never accused of “unwanted advances or remarks of a sexual nature."
Beyond that, he says confidentiality requirements of the suits prohibit him from discussing particulars — even though the issue weighs heavily in the current campaign.
City turnout a question mark
Even though Tolbert should compete this year as a favorite in heavily Democratic Erie County, most polls show him trailing — though far from out of it. As he aims to be elected the county’s first black sheriff, he might normally benefit from strong turnout in the Democratic stronghold of Buffalo, where African-Americans also would be expected to strongly support his candidacy.
But the September Democratic primary settled all city races, and Tuesday's turnout is projected to be extremely low. And while the Democratic Party is working hard to encourage voters to show up, Brown’s significant City Hall machine is expected to remain idled for the mayor’s 2013 primary opponent.
“We’re having conversations about that,” Tolbert said.
Still, he is working hard to encourage city turnout in a contest he and others label competitive. A few days ago he met with Latino leaders at his Jefferson Avenue headquarters.
“We are in full support of Bernie and his campaign,” said Jose Pizarro following the meeting. “It’s about time we had changes in the office and someone who cares about the community.”
On the same day, he participated in a one-hour WUFO radio program at True Bethel Church on East Ferry Street, hosted by Bishop Darius G. Pridgen, who is also president of the Buffalo Common Council. He reiterated to Pridgen all the reasons why he should be the new sheriff, and appealed to the station's primarily black audience, explaining why he will depend on their vote.
“We’ve got to get people in Buffalo to understand their vote is important. Buffalo is critical,” he said. “We don’t have the kind of mayoral race I would like to have, so people need to understand the power of voters is something you can’t diminish or overlook.”