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Editorial: Answers for Sheriff Howard

The sheriff’s question, apparently, was serious.

Timothy B. Howard, the lawman at whose desk the buck never stops, on Wednesday lobbed a fat, slow pitch to members of the Erie County Legislature: “Why,” he asked, oblivious to his obliviousness, “are you so willing to accept as true what is no more than an opinion?”

The “opinion” to which he referred came from the state board that oversees the state’s jails, and it wasn’t merely an opinion. It was a conclusion, based on a review of facts. The conclusion was that yet another county jail inmate died because of incompetence or indifference in Howard’s jail.

India Cummings died because of medical neglect, the state Commission of Correction said. Her death should be ruled a homicide, it said.

“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 state panel of doctors and lawyers said in a report obtained by The News.

Never one to accept responsibility for the department he leads, Howard shrugged off the “opinion” and asked county legislators why they would possibly believe it.

The answer may seem obvious to anyone who has followed Howard’s poor administration of the department. Nevertheless, he is the sheriff and he deserves an answer to his question. Herewith, some reasons “why”:

  • The jail was plagued by so many inmate suicides several years ago that the federal Department of Justice intervened. Howard resisted, showing little interest in the need to make changes.
  • Even after the lawsuit was settled, jail personnel chronically misreported suicide attempts as individual inmate disturbances, thus allowing the administration to avoid questions by the Commission of Correction. Howard thought that was all right.
  • Jail personnel mishandled a difficult inmate, Richard Metcalf, by tying a spit mask so tightly around his neck that he ended up dying. They then misreported the death to the Commission of Correction. Howard had no problem with that.
  • During a deposition regarding Metcalf’s death, Howard answered 68 questions with “I don’t know.” If he knows so little, how would he know the Commission of Correction is wrong in this case?
  • Howard campaigned on a promise not to enforce elements of the state gun control laws with which he disagreed. The SAFE Act has been repeatedly upheld by the courts, with some revisions.
  • Howard used his official car to go to work a $50-an-hour, part-time job at M&T Bank, sometimes during hours he should have been working for taxpayers. He saw no problem with that.
  • Howard attended a political rally in full uniform, lending it the power of his public office. He saw no problem with that.
  • Howard refused to accept any responsibility for the 2006 escape of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips who, while he was on the run from the Erie County Correctional Facility, murdered a state trooper.

So the question isn’t why county legislators would believe an “opinion” from the Commission of Correction, but rather, why could it possibly have any confidence in Howard?

This is a sheriff who routinely demonstrates poor judgment, whose jail is chronically mismanaged and who refuses, under any circumstance, to accept responsibility for the wreckage strewn along his trail of incompetence and indifference.

Howard was re-elected to a four-year term last November, so Erie County is stuck with him for a while yet. Can anyone doubt that he will continue to reject responsibility for the disorder that had become synonymous with his administration?

But no one should be fooled. What you are seeing really is happening.

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