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COMMENTARY

Rod Watson: New video exposes Sheriff's Office culture that rots from the top

The latest revelations from body cameras worn by county deputies when a Buffalo Bills fan was brutally assaulted by one of their colleagues – Deputy Kenneth Achtyl – are troubling for at least two reasons.

When one deputy in the footage remarks that "Kenny turned into Kenny" and another says "Kenny always pushes people," it indicates that Achtyl’s penchant for abusing citizens was well-known within the department.

Beyond that, Achtyl wielding his nightstick to bloody a citizen who has the audacity to utter a profanity doesn’t even get a rise out of his colleagues. That lack of outrage among other deputies points to a culture within the Erie County Sheriff’s Office that seems to accept this kind of behavior as normal.

All of which points to a failure of department leadership to establish norms that ensure county residents have the kind of police force they deserve for their tax dollars. And leadership – or the lack thereof – starts at the top, with Sheriff Timothy Howard.

It also starts with the governor, the only person – other than voters – with the power to remove a sheriff.

That’s what just happened in Florida, where new Gov. Ron DeSantis removed elected Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. DeSantis cited the department’s chaotic response to last year’s Parkland high school shooting in which Nikolas Cruz killed 17 while Israel’s deputies lingered outside instead of rushing in to save lives.

By way of comparison, 24 people have died in Erie County jails since Howard become sheriff. Even discounting deaths by natural causes, the mismanagement and obfuscation surrounding other egregious cases have been well chronicled. And that doesn’t include the death of the state trooper killed by Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, who escaped from one of Howard’s jails.

Body-camera video turns against deputies after bloody arrest at Bills game

Removing someone elected by voters obviously is a drastic step that should be employed only in extreme circumstances, and one that can be freighted with politics. In Florida, for instance, it involved a Republican governor removing a Democratic sheriff.

But DeSantis neutralized the political implications by replacing Israel with another Democrat. That’s the same model Gov. Andrew Cuomo could follow in replacing Howard with another Republican to take politics out of the equation.

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Of course, voters in two New York counties – Nassau and Westchester – don’t have to rely on the governor or wait until the next sheriff’s election. County executives in those counties appoint the sheriff. In Nassau, the new county executive replaced the sheriff last year after a series of inmate deaths and inadequate care in the county jail.

Sound familiar?

It’s hard to imagine Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tolerating the kind of sheriff’s department we have here. When three kids died due to shortcomings in the county’s Child Protective Services units, Poloncarz didn’t deny the obvious. Instead, he implemented a series of reforms.

Contrast that with Howard’s response to the jail deaths, in which he fought both state Commission of Correction and U.S. Justice Department efforts to hold his department accountable. Or contrast it with his response to the body camera footage of Achtyl and his enablers, footage obtained during a pilot project that has since ended. A sheriff interested in reform would make every effort to make body cameras permanent; instead, Howard has made clear that it is not a priority for him.

If he doesn’t continue with body cameras, the fictional account Achtyl submitted in court – and that other deputies will submit in future such incidents that are inevitable given the department’s lack of leadership – will be the only accounts the public gets of such encounters.

All of which leaves residents with difficult choices, given how long it could take to change the county charter that now mandates an elected sheriff.

Instead, they can put enough pressure on the governor to make him act, as DeSantis did. Or they can wait out Howard, who last year indicated this would be his last term. Then they can elect someone who will change the department’s culture – and hope not too many more people die or get baton-whipped in the meantime.

 

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