The questions surrounding video of an Erie County sheriff’s deputy assaulting a man at a Buffalo Bills game last year begin with why that officer wasn’t charged with a crime and end with whether this is a professionally managed sheriff’s department or home to a corps of lone wolves lacking any fear of either their boss or the law.
The video, which recorded a confrontation after a Bills game last December, clearly shows that Deputy Kenneth P. Achtyl attacked Nicholas H. Belsito, leaving him a broken nose and bloodied face. Belsito had apparently cursed at the deputy, who had arrested Belsito’s friend and who couldn’t control himself as Belsito sought information on where deputies were taking the friend.
Law enforcement’s job was to de-escalate a tense situation. Instead, the video suggests that the deputy did the opposite, creating a crisis where none existed. That shouldn’t be tolerable from people who carry a gun and who have the power to deprive other citizens of their liberty. Law officers hold a special place in society, one that comes with expectations of judgment and restraint.
Achtyl arrested Belsito on charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration and criminal mischief. All were dropped. Why? Because it wasn’t Belsito who broke the law.
It is, of course, regrettable that Belsito didn’t just drive to the jail after Achtyl, reluctantly and aggressively, told him where he could find his friend. The cursing wasn’t necessary but – this is important – it is legal. It’s not a criminal offense for which a person can legally be arrested in New York, let alone attacked by an officer of the law. Police are supposed to be public servants, not an occupying force.
That this sheriff’s department is poorly led has been shown repeatedly. The state Commission of Correction found that jail deputies caused the death of an inmate and that they had misreported the confrontation. It found that jail deputies were also falsely categorizing suicide attempts as disturbances that didn’t need to be reported to the state.
This is the Erie County Sheriff’s Department as led by Timothy B. Howard, a man who has repeatedly made plain his indifference to professionalism in law enforcement. On his watch, it seems, anything goes.
Achtyl surely didn’t care that Howard might disapprove of his actions. In broad daylight, and with an officer’s body camera recording the attack, he assaulted a man who had done nothing illegal. Neither did the jail deputies who caused the death of Richard Metcalf worry about Howard. In a deposition in that case, the sheriff, himself, answered “I don’t know” 68 times.
Taxpayers, who will be on the hook if Belsito prevails in his lawsuit for wrongful arrest, might at least breathe a sigh of relief that the body camera did its job. The purpose of those cameras is to offer clarity and – hopefully – to discourage false reports against officers while making clear when a cop has done wrong. That seems an apt description of Achtyl who not only bloodied Belsito, but who, based on the video, appears to have reported it falsely to a sheriff’s medic at New Era Field.
But taxpayers should remain wary. While the Sheriff’s Department adopted use of the cameras as a trial in October 2017, Howard has not followed up or requested funding for the cameras in the 2019 county budget. Was it just a charade as his 2017 re-election approached? As the video and Howard’s mismanagement both document, this is a department that desperately needs these cameras.
Now Howard is on the spot. He can serve the public and his honest deputies by moving to adopt body cameras as a useful public policy or he can refuse, and continue to send the message to the bad ones that anything goes.