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Editorial: Will Sheriff Howard be held to account for jail death?

The word “homicide” is not thrown around lightly, but that was the term chosen by the state Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board after examining the death of inmate India Cummings after her 17 days in the Erie County Holding Center.

Her death was homicide due to medical neglect while in the custody of county sheriff deputies, the review board concluded in a report cited in Tuesday’s Buffalo News.

The question now is, who will be held accountable?

The review board has no standing to change the official cause and manner of death on its own. Any change in the conclusions of Cummings’ autopsy would have to be made by Dr. Scott F. LaPoint, a pathologist from Monroe County who conducted the autopsy and had said the cause of death was “undetermined.” LaPoint has said he is seeking more information.

Cummings, 27 at the time of her death in February 2016, was a troubled person. She was believed to be high on the drug K2, a synthetic substance similar to marijuana, when authorities say she carjacked a vehicle, got into a chase with police, and crashed the car into four vehicles, including a school bus. She suffered a broken arm, possibly during the crash, during her arrest or in clashes with jail personnel. The untreated broken arm is believed to have contributed to her death at Erie County Medical Center.

Authorities say Cummings argued with medical staff in the Holding Center’s infirmary, and punched a sheriff’s deputy while returning to her cell. The deputy suffered a concussion. Her physical and mental states deteriorated sharply while in jail, and at one point was left in a puddle of urine on her cell floor.

She was no model prisoner, but the many signs of her deterioration were exactly why she needed extra intervention by jail and medical personnel, the review board concluded. Cummings had been frequently refusing to eat and was heard banging her head against the bars of her cell.

The death toll for inmates in the county’s two jails has reached 24 since Timothy B. Howard became sheriff in 2005, or 1.8 deaths per year under his watch. Many involve suicide or suicide attempts.

Howard last year told a News reporter that he regularly invites public groups to tour the Holding Center and county Correctional Facility in Alden to see the conditions themselves.

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

No one expects jail time to be a luxury experience. But it’s also not supposed to be a death sentence.

The state Commission of Correction earlier this year issued a report saying Erie County’s jails were among the five worst-run in the state. “Managerial shortcomings of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office have contributed to numerous serious incidents at the Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility, including inmate escapes, assaults and deaths,” the commission wrote.

Howard issued a defensive response, basically saying the commission was picking on him for past disagreements.

If Cummings’ death is ruled a homicide, the district attorney could bring charges. Short of that, the only price to be paid for Cummings’ death would be borne by the taxpayers. Lawyers for Cummings’ mother, Tawana R. Wyatt, filed a civil suit in 2017 against Erie County, Howard and the City of Lackawanna, where Cummings was arrested. That has yet to be resolved.

Howard told The News last fall that he would not run for another term; he will be in office through 2021. If the death of India Cummings is ruled a homicide and criminal charges are brought, the force of law might finally come down on the sheriff’s heavy-handed mismanagement of the county’s jail system.

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