Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s refusal to release internal reports reaffirms his misguided belief that he can brazenly mismanage the Erie County jails and get away with it and without public backlash.
He is wrong.
Howard’s reluctance to allow the public to see internal reports about serious incidents in the jails is the latest example of a sheriff determined to play by his own rules. He should not get away with it.
The court must grant final victory to the Buffalo chapter of the National Lawyers Guild – and with it, the public – in the Guild’s efforts to obtain a range of internal “incident reports” about suicides, suicide attempts and “other serious events in the jails.”
The courts must force Howard to stop playing gatekeeper to public information that is plainly public. The situation has devolved to the extent that the Democratic-controlled County Legislature has complained in this newspaper about not getting records or information from the Sheriff’s Office. They say they are the last to learn that an inmate has died which has occurred an average of every six months during Howard’s tenure.
Six lawmakers sponsored a bill requiring the sheriff to give a basic report to the Legislature whenever an inmate dies or requires hospitalization for a serious injury. It was a necessary move, but in what world would legislators who have something to say about the sheriff’s funding need to go to these measures? The answer: Erie County.
January marked nearly two years since State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour signed an order granting the Lawyers Guild many of the records the group requested and awarding it more than $27,000 in attorney’s fees. The Guild collected $27,098, but it still awaiting the records.
Two weeks after Montour signed the order, a county lawyer filed a document declaring the Sheriff’s Office will appeal to the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.
Now Montour’s order is on hold until the appeal cycles to an end. Second Assistant County Attorney Jeremy C. Toth is on a 60-day clock to file the appeal and is able to ask for an extension if he cannot make the March 30 deadline.
The Guild is a nonprofit organization promoting human rights and based in New York City. The Buffalo chapter is composed of local attorneys.
This sheriff has gone out of his way to deny the public access to documents and information that it has every right to obtain, and it seems the more pressure applied to him, the worse the situation becomes. He has been doubling down against Freedom of Information requests for jail records since 2017, following The Buffalo News’ success in obtaining certain incident reports under the open records law.
Those reports showed that Howard’s Jail Management Division, while operating under a Justice Department order to “better prevent suicides,” had been labeling suicide attempts as “individual inmate disturbances,” essentially burying the truth – that is to say, lying – and avoiding reporting the attempt to the Commission of Correction in Albany.
Toth, the assistant county attorney, has been on a tear, and the Howard team has since denied FOI requests from this newspaper. It also, at first, ignored the National Lawyer’s Guild’s request for documents which, as reported by News staff writer Matthew Spina, “could shine more light on whether incidents were being accurately reported.”
In May 2018, The News filed an affidavit in support of the Guild’s court case, bolstering the effort to wrest the information from the Sheriff’s Office, which claimed that “releasing many internal records … would violate inmates’ privacy,” despite the Guild’s concession to forgo inmate names.
There is no violation of privacy at stake. The violations are Howard’s, against transparency and the possibility of creating acceptable conditions in the county’s jails.
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