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Race for Erie County Sheriff heats up

WBFO File Photo

With the primary in less than three weeks and the November general election soon after, political campaigns are heating up. The two candidates for Erie County Sheriff are making strong complaints about each other.

As Undersheriff  and then Sheriff, Tim Howard has been around long enough for his record to be the centerpiece of the the campaign. This election, declared Democratic challenger Bernie Tolbert used a weekend story in the Buffalo News about 22 deaths in the Erie County Holding Center to go after Howard.

"Many of the 22 deaths under Tim Howard were not suicides, tragic as suicides may be," said Tolbert. "Several of these deaths were the result of beatings or negligence or unprofessional treatment. One of them is a confirmed homicide and at least two others may be homicides at the hands of jail personnel."

Tolbert called Howard "a disgrace and embarrassment" and said what has happened in the Holding Center since Howard became Sheriff in 2005 is "carnage."

"There's a fatal lack of proper training and oversight in the Erie County jails," he said. "Deaths like these will continue until the hard-working men and women in the Sheriff's Office are given the training and the leadership that they and we all deserve."

The former Agent in Charge of the Buffalo FBI Office promised to be the "agent of change" if elected in November.

"I will immediately institute a top to bottom review of training procedures for deputies and other jail personnel," Tolbert said. "We will identify the best practices for dealing with inmates who represent unusual challenges due to drug influence or mental health issues. We will bring in training experts from across the country and we will get it right."

Tolbert also promised "transparency" and a full accounting of the Sheriff Department's budget and overtime policies.

"Mr. Tolbert has nothing to offer," Howard countered. "The things that he criticizes are conditions that don't exist anymore and people should keep in mind that he's been retired from law enforcement since before 9/11."

Howard said most of the conditions cited by Tolbert were long ago and go back to the county fiscal mess in the Red/Green budget period.

Credit WBFO File Photo
Democratic Erie County Sheriff challenger Bernie Tolbert

"Mr. Tolbert is focusing on old news," Howard told WBFO. "The majority of the deaths he references were at a time when most people of Erie County remember the Red budgets and the lack of personnel, but the conditions in the jail now and during the last four years aren't anything like they were eight, 10, 12 years ago."

The latest inmate death was in July. Still, Howard said before that suicide, the last one was three years prior to that.

"I suspect that that's far less than the a national average that he misquotes, claiming that our facility has five times the national average in suicides," Howard said. "Even the next paragraph of that study that reported that says you can't compare the suicide rates in a jail with the people that are there at an age that are maybe most prone to suicide, you can't compare that to the general public, which includes all of the people, including infants and the elderly. So the populations aren't the same and can't be compared."

When a suicide occurs in the community or someone dies among the public, Howard said explanations are sought without placing blame. 

"When these things occur in a jail, people automatically assume that it's something else, that somehow the jail or the personnel here are to blame," Howard said.

But he said the most significant thing is that "those are old issues that have been properly addressed."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.