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Citizens win court case forcing Erie County sheriff to accurately report jail incidents

Four Erie County citizens have won their unusual court case, which orders Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to accurately report serious jail incidents, as a state agency requires.

If he doesn't, the four can return to court to ask that the sheriff be held in contempt and compelled, perhaps with a fine, to follow the order.

An attorney for Howard had argued that a legal victory by the four would make them akin to a state agency: the state Commission of Correction. The commission regulates New York's local jails and in 2017 directed Howard to follow its rules on reporting serious incidents or face court action.

Despite the county's arguments, State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour granted the citizens' request days ago. Assistant County Attorney Jeremy C. Toth, said the decision will be appealed.

Through lawyer Anna M. Richmond of Buffalo, the four filed court papers citing court opinions more than a century old that allow any citizen to go to court to insist a public official carry out their duties.

One of the four who took the case to court is Nan Haynes, a retired University at Buffalo School of Law professor.

"The judge's decision is a victory for the citizens of New York State," Haynes said, "because it means that government officials are not above the law. And it means that when government officials, such as Sheriff Howard, fail to execute their legal duties, concerned citizens can step in and ask a court to order them to follow the law.

"It also means," she said, "that when state agencies charged with overseeing government officials, such as the Commission of Correction, fail to execute their legal duties, concerned citizens can act in their place."

The other three citizens are: the Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, a former official at the Correctional Facility; Karima Amin, a central player in prisoners' rights groups; and Chuck Culhane of the Western New York Peace Center's Prisoners' Action Committee.

The four had been active in the Community Corrections Advisory Board, a panel created by the county Legislature to recommend ways to improve the treatment of inmates at the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden. The advisory board disbanded in 2014 after Republican lawmakers protective of the Republican sheriff took control of the Legislature and weakened the panel.

Obtaining the government documents needed to show Howard's staff failed to accurately report a jail incident will be difficult. Howard's Jail Management Division, led by Superintendent Thomas Diina, has clamped down on Freedom of Information requests for jail incident reports. The Howard team, which now faces a lawsuit over its refusal to release records, argues that making the incident reports public violates an inmate's privacy.

The Howard team, whose management of the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility has been rated by the Commission of Correction as among the state's worst, refuses to comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit sprung from a series of events in 2017. Early that year, The Buffalo News revealed that Howard's jail officials were categorizing inmate suicide attempts as "individual inmate disturbances," a label that did not require an automatic report to the Commission of Correction.

The News also revealed that the staff at the Correctional Facility wrongly told the commission an inmate was hospitalized because he had been hurt in an accidental fall. In fact, the inmate had sought protective custody, didn't get it, and was beaten unconscious by the inmate he feared. Even after charges were lodged against an attacker, the Correctional Facility staff let their false report to Albany stand.

The citizens also cited the 2012 death of Holding Center inmate Richard A. Metcalf Jr., who state investigators found had been strangled to death when jail deputies knotted the strings of a spit mask around his neck. In the days following his death, the jail staff withheld mention of the spit mask or any other restraint devices in their reports to Albany.

Also in 2017, the Commission of Correction found Howard's staff at the Holding Center had failed to officially report the mistaken release of an inmate.

In May 2017, the Commission of Correction sent Howard a letter directing him to follow its "reportable incident" guidelines or face a lawsuit. Diina then responded with a letter assuring the commission that Erie County jail officials would follow the rules.

The matter might have ended there, if not for an interview Howard gave The Buffalo News a few weeks later. Howard justified his staff's decision to label certain suicide attempts as inmate disturbances or "manipulative gestures" if they felt the inmate was only trying to gain sympathy and didn't really want to die.

The four saw that as a sign the sheriff felt free to interpret the rules on his own, and they began researching a court case.

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