Share this article

print logo

Sheriff Howard touts public safety experience, defends against critics

Sheriff Timothy Howard drives an 11-year-old Chevy Suburban once owned by a drug dealer.

It's a testament, he said, to his down-to-earth and frugal nature, to his sense of stewardship as head of the county's high-profile law enforcement and jail management organization. Thanks to increased county support, he said, jails are better staffed and managed, resulting in the recent accreditation by the New York State Sheriff's Association.

"The earmark of a true professional is what he or she does with the resources they have available," he said.

But Howard, the Republican incumbent, acknowledges he faces one of the most challenging bids for re-election since he first won the office in 2005.

He's certainly no stranger to controversy.

Democratic challenger Bernie Tolbert has pointed to the 22 inmates who have died during Howard's tenure, including Richard Metcalfe. He died in 2012 after investigators said he was improperly fitted with a spit mask.

Other controversies include the office's failure to report serious inmate incidents to the state, Howard's decision to wear his uniform while speaking at a pro-Trump rally, and his lack of participation in candidate debates, among other issues.

Howard responded by running TV attack ads as early as September, contrasting his law enforcement experience with sexism allegations against Tolbert from the challenger's time as an administrator with the National Basketball Association a decade ago.

"This man is no saint," Howard said of Tolbert.

Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner called the early commercials a sign of desperation, as well as validation that Howard considers Tolbert a serious threat in the sheriff's race.

Experience touted

In recent days, Tolbert has launched a 30-second ad denying sexual harassment allegations against him and further alleging that Howard has had a sexual harassment suit file against him. The discrimination suit, which originally dated to 2007, did not relate to any personally inappropriate behavior by Howard, though he is named as a defendant in the suit.

Instead, it alleged sexual discrimination by other officers against a former employee who is lesbian.

Judge faults sheriff's team in jail officer's sex bias complaint

Howard, 67, said the ad is the latest in a string of "misinformation" put out by Tolbert's campaign.

"It's just another indicator of his lack of transparency," he said.

The Town of Wales resident, who earned a master's degree in criminal justice, points to his long history in law enforcement, which dates back to his time as a patrol officer with the Gowanda Police Department in 1972. He joined the State Police a short time later and was eventually promoted to the fourth-highest rank by the time he left in 1998 to serve as undersheriff to then-Sheriff Patrick Gallivan.

In contrast, he said, Tolbert has been out of law enforcement since he left the FBI in 2001. He also said Tolbert's current position of senior investigator for the Social Services Department's Child Protective Services is not police work.

"His title of senior investigator has nothing to do with law enforcement," Howard said. "He's a social worker."

He went on to say that Social Services is not a "model agency."

Dead inmates

Tolbert, however, offered a similar opinion about the Sheriff's Office operations, saying that inmates who wind up at county jails or correctional facilities should not be put at risk of dying. Some of Tolbert's supporters have posted signs decrying Howard as a "racist" and "murderer."

Howard responded that with the commitment to proper staffing, suicides and other deaths in county jails have drastically fallen.

"Let's look at what's happened lately," Howard said. "Don't look at what the problems were, but look at the conditions now."

Over the last 10 years, working staff in the Sheriff's Office has risen from 800 during the aftermath of the red-green budget crisis to 1,200 employees now. That includes about 900 sworn deputies and corrections officers. An influx of officers were added in 2013, he said.

Since September 2014, there have been three deaths at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden and the Holding Center in Buffalo.

A list of 22 Erie County inmates who have died since Howard became sheriff

David Liddick, 42, died of natural causes in 2014 after the State Commission of Correction found he received "grossly incompetent" medical care.

There were no reported deaths in 2015.

India Cummings, 27, died in custody last year. A pathologist said the cause and manner of her death were "undetermined." Howard speculated Tuesday that based on published facts, her preexisting injuries and drug use may have played a direct role in her death, but others have accused his officers of of improper treatment or mistreatment.

Vincent Sorrentino, 31, was being held on drug charges when he hanged himself in a shower stall.

Howard said not all deaths can be prevented, particularly for an inmate population that typically has higher-than-average health risks. He also said civilian groups are regularly invited to tour the Holding Center in an attempt to dispel perceptions of secrecy and abuse by deputies.

"At the same time, it's not a country club, and we don't want it to be a country club," he said.

This past spring, the Commission of Correction faulted the Sheriff's Office for failing to report serious inmate incidents, including suicide attempts and inmate violence. Howard responded that Erie County is one of the few counties with 24-hour mental health professionals who can assess whether these types of incidents may be classified as lower level "individual inmate disturbances," which are not reported to the state.

The Commission of Correction stated the Sheriff's Office is not allowed to make that judgment call.

Corrections panel orders Howard to report inmate suicide attempts

Rally appearance

In April, Democrats and advocates for racial justice called for Howard to be punished or forced to resign for wearing his uniform as a speaker at a "Spirit of America" rally. During the event, some participants carried Confederate flags and symbols, drawing ire and condemnation from protesters.

Howard said the rally was meant to be a call for unity. His remarks revolved around support for the Constitution and changes to the immigration system. He bristled at the description of the rally as a political event and said he never considered his uniform to be an issue.

The rally invitation was organized by the local TEA Party, listed conservative speakers and described the event as "inclusive, non-partisan and open to anyone supporting President Trump."

Tolbert has criticized Howard for doing too little to address the opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives over the past five years in Erie County.

Howard responded that his Narcotics Unit has acted on more than 100 search warrants this year, focusing on opiate drug dealers. The searches recovered more than 100 ounces of fentanyl and heroine, he said.

His deputies administer Narcan, the emergency rescue drug, and the office participates in a prescription drug drop-off program to give residents a way of disposing of narcotic medication safety, he said.

Tolbert has also accused Howard of shortchanging voters by refusing to attend any candidate debates. Howard said he attended three early on, which Tolbert did not attend, but has since decided that such candidate forums are not an effective way to communicate with voters.

"You can't address the issues in the time period of the debate," he said.

Howard's campaign has purchased extensive air time on television and counts on voters to embrace his message of public safety experience, particularly in the suburbs and rural areas where his conservative base is expected to support him.

Finally ready, Erie County sheriff seeks and receives state accreditation for jails

Howard is endorsed by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform parties. He said he takes heart in the fact that all four unions represented in the Sheriff's Office have endorsed him, a sign they don't accept the "misinformation" from Tolbert's campaign.

There are no comments - be the first to comment