Share this article

print logo

Sheriff to lawmakers: Critical report on inmate death is 'an opinion'

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard on Wednesday questioned why county lawmakers believe the state Commission of Correction when it says gross incompetence led to the death of an inmate in the Erie County Holding Center he oversees.

"Why are you so willing to accept as true what is no more than an opinion?" Howard said of the detailed 33-page report from the Commission of Correction's Medical Review Board.

The panel of doctors and lawyers threw blame on deputies and on the jail's medical and mental health professionals by saying India Cummings' death in 2016 should be labeled a homicide due to medical neglect.

Howard often turns on the commission when it blames him or his staff in high-profile events. For example, he and his aides shot back at the Commission of Correction when it criticized his Erie County Correctional Facility in a report about the escape of Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, who went on to kill a state trooper during his days as a fugitive in 2006.

Howard derided the commission when it faulted his staff after the 2012 homicide of Holding Center inmate Richard Metcalf Jr. He bristled when the state agency told him to start following state rules on the reporting of serious jail incidents or face a lawsuit. And he said the agency was being "picayune" when it said the Erie County facilities were among New York's worst-run jails.

So Howard's question to the county lawmakers who gathered Wednesday to discuss the death of Cummings drew a retort.

"This is not the first time we have been here," said Legislator Patrick B. Burke, a Democrat from South Buffalo, who said the Cummings death was another jail matter that may cost county taxpayers "significant resources."

Burke reminded Howard of the answers he gave during a deposition about Metcalf's death in 2017. The sheriff answered 68 questions with "I don't know," and said he goes into the Holding Center about once a month.

Burke suggested Howard is "not up to speed on all matters."

Sheriff's testimony in inmate-death lawsuit is riddled with 'I don't know'

Just minutes later, Howard was gone from the hearing into the Cummings death. One of his assistants had told the Legislature's staff the previous day that a scheduling conflict meant he could attend for only a few minutes. A legislative aide said Howard left to attend a funeral.

The sheriff left behind the top officials of his Jail Management Division and his spokesman, Scott Zylka, who was asked later how much time Howard spent conducting his own independent examination of Cummings' death.

"I guarantee, he has spent time on it," Zylka said. "I don't think anybody put a clock on it."

Filling the Legislature's gallery was a crowd of about 30 people with strong feelings about the way Howard runs the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the county Correctional Facility in Alden. The drumbeat of 24 deaths inside those facilities since Howard became sheriff in 2005 has fueled frequent protests.

After Howard implied the Commission of Correction should not be trusted, one man in the gallery yelled: "You don't trust the state authorities. We don't trust you."

Another man yelled: "Two suicides. Three deaths. One year." He was referring to the suicides of inmates Michael Girard and Vincent Sorrentino, and the apparent heart-attack death of inmate David Stitt, all in an approximately 10-month period.

The hearing was called by April N. M. Baskin, another Buffalo Democrat who serves as the Democratic majority leader and chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee.

"What this report showcases is a system failure," Baskin said, explaining she wanted to "uncover the root causes that led us to this tragedy."

Lawmaker asks sheriff for answers after critical state report on inmate's death

Her re-examination was stopped in its tracks by Michelle Parker, an assistant county attorney. Because a lawsuit over the inmate's death is underway, Parker blocked Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Mental Health Commissioner Michael R. Ranney and Jail Management Superintendent Thomas Diina from speaking specifically about Cummings. The department heads could answer questions about general policies, procedures and practices.

Still, lawmakers learned Cummings, by refusing food and medications, sleeping on the floor and urinating on herself, showed she was a danger to herself and should have been in one of the jail's psychiatric beds at Erie County Medical Center.

But there are only two such beds there for county inmates under confinement orders, said Ranney, the mental health commissioner. Under sustained questioning from Baskin, Ranney eventually agreed it would be better to have more than two such beds.

Cummings died at age 27 from a combination of maladies, the state Commission of Correction said in the report made public days ago. But the agency said she would have lived had the Holding Center's key medical and mental health staff intervened, as she lay babbling in a puddle of urine, and provided proper care.

"The medical and mental health care provided to Cummings by Erie County during the course of incarceration, and her care, custody and safekeeping by Erie County sheriff deputies was so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience," the Commission of Correction's Medical Review Board said in a report obtained by The Buffalo News.

No one can remember the Medical Review Board ever before saying an Erie County jail death should be ruled a homicide because of medical neglect. The state agency, however, cannot change the cause and manner of death on its own. So it called on the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office to do so. Through a spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, the Medical Examiner's Office said it will not change the cause of death to homicide without substantial new information. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Scott F. LaPoint, took the same position.

LaPoint left both the cause and manner of LaPoint's death as "undetermined" because, he said at the time, he needed more information about how the inmate died.

According to witnesses and police reports, Cummings burst from her Lackawanna apartment on Feb. 1, 2016, determined to return to Rochester, where she had lived for many years. She approached a Ford Taurus, punched the driver and dragged him out of his car, Lackawanna police said. She then led officers on a chase that ended after the Taurus struck other vehicles and a school bus. Acquaintances said she had been smoking synthetic marijuana and attributed her behavior to the dangerous substance known as K2.

Two days after she was jailed, Cummings was taken to the Holding Center infirmary. But while there, she argued with the medical staff and was denied treatment. Then she punched a jail deputy returning her to her cell. The female deputy keeled over with a concussion as several deputies were called to subdue the inmate.

The next day, Feb. 4, Cummings was examined at Erie County Medical Center for “a possible broken bone,” according to another report. But she struggled with deputies placing her into a patrol vehicle for the drive back to the Holding Center. Both episodes led to more charges against her.

A picture of a confused inmate in a mental tailspin emerges as the Medical Review Board chronicles Cummings' last days. She refused medications, rejected several meals and went long stretches of time, as much as 32 hours in one span, without urinating. She "seemed out of it" and "didn't act like she knew she was in jail," a jail deputy told a commission investigator.

On Feb. 16, Cummings suffered the "medical event" that a Howard spokesman at the time said led to her being rushed to Buffalo General Medical Center – the nearest hospital for dire emergencies. She died in Erie County Medical Center on Feb. 21.

There are no comments - be the first to comment