Erie County lawmakers sitting on the Legislature's Public Safety Committee heard input Thursday from three guests as they weigh a proposed local law which would establish what they're calling the Erie County Corrections Specialist Advisory Board.
The proposed panel, introduced and sponsored by Legislator April Baskin, would form a community oversight panel to observe and advise the Erie County Sheriff's Office's Jail Management division.
Supporters of the proposed panel, including civil rights attorney and UB Law School professor emerita Nan Haynes, say such a committee is needed given the recent history of incidents involving people in custody.
"We are known as a community that condones an ugly, systematic human rights violation," said Haynes, who was one of three legal experts invited to testify before the Public Safety Committee. "It shames me and I know we are better than that. I know because of the broad support of this law from diverse community groups."
Also invited to speak was Dr. Henry Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies. He told lawmakers he sees the proposed advisory board as not only providing oversight but also "reimagining."
"Reimagining how that whole system works," he said. "Reimagining how we recreate these linkages and connections. Reimagining how we improve these lives. Reimagining how we take these people and integrate them again within the framework of society."
Legislators from the minority caucus who sit on the Public Safety Committee have several questions and are hoping to prolong discussion before a vote. Legislator Joseph Lorigo, during the hearing, raised questions including panel makeup and responsibilities. Legislator Lynne Dixon suggests the panel might come up with ideas but they won't supercede state correction laws.
Sheriff Timothy Howard was not present. His spokesman, Scott Zylka, did appear before the committee to discuss other business, specifically contract renewals with vendors. He told reporters following the committee that he was only made aware of the discussion and the guests a short while before it happened.
"I did see a press release, shared with me, that there was only three invited speakers for this," Zylka said. "I was asked prior to the Public Safety meeting to stay, after I had talked about some legislative items. That was the extent of our invite."
He expressed a desire to let the sheriff add his input but that's unlikely. No further Publis Safety Committee meetings are scheduled before next Thursday's full legislature session. And because the legislature hosted a required public hearing the previous evening, the hurdles have been cleared to bring the local law up for a vote, possibly at next Thursday's session.
Attorney Miles Gresham, a public defender and former member of Erie County's Board of Ethics, says what he does not want is for an advisory panel to create an "us versus them" relationship with law enforcers.
"I work with a lot of deputies and many of them are honorable professional people," Gresham said. "I would like this legislature to adopt this law in the spirit of community, of one community that is seeking justice for all of its citizens, because that's what we're supposed to do here in this country."