Democratic candidates for Erie County sheriff discussed how they would address the county holding center and jail in a debate Monday night.
Voice Buffalo invited six candidates from across the political spectrum, but only the three Democrat candidates showed up. Republicans Karen Healy-Case, Ted DiNoto and Steve Felano did not respond, according to Voice Buffalo, while Republican John Garcia said he had a scheduling conflict.
The Sheriff's Department has several operations, including road patrol in much of the county, but the debate centered on the downtown Buffalo holding center and the jail in Alden.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, who is not seeking a fifth term in November, has been criticized for his management of both, but most essentially the holding center, after nearly three dozen in-custody deaths since he took office in 2005.
All candidates were asked about the re-imagining of the two custodial facilities, which are supposed to be merged.
Myles Carter, a well-known Buffalo activist who has been involved in protests against police brutality, said a key is hiring essential support staffers.
“We are going to make sure that we're hiring mental health counselors. We're going to make sure that we're hiring behavioral health counselors. We're going to make sure that we're hiring drug counselors. We’re going to make sure that we're hiring drug treatment specialists,” Carter said. “Our starting salary for deputies is $60,000 a year and they're getting tons of overtime. Sixty thousand dollars a year is more than enough to pay these mental health counselors that are coming out of school, more than enough to pay these social workers that are coming out of school.”
While crisis intervention teams are important, deputies also need to be trained in mental health, said Kimberly Beaty, director of public safety at Canisius College and former deputy commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department.
“You never know what you're going to get and you never know what time it's going to happen,” she said, adding the county’s current jail standards are “embarrassing” and need to be addressed.
Candidates agreed the jail and holding center have to offer more help to people being held inside, from job training to drug treatment. Brian Gould, assistant chief for the Cheektowaga Police Department, said he's done it before.
“In 2013, I recognized that the criminal justice system needed to reform in a way that we're interacting with people with mental health concerns. I developed a program for crisis intervention training, where we began training police officers to recognize mental health concerns, to better respond to mental health concerns and to know what resources are available within the community,” he said. “As sheriff, I will expand that program.”
All three candidates said programs like mental health treatment are essential to getting people in jail to straighten out their personal lives and potentially not come back to behind bars.