The Erie County Sheriff's Office is hailing an accreditation, awarded by a statewide association, for its Jail Management Division. It is an honor that recognizes the county's jail system for meeting a set of standards, but some are raising questions about several deaths and other incidents behind bars.
The New York State Sheriffs Association on Tuesday presented Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard with its Correction Division Accreditation.
It is a recognition that does not come easily. Law enforcement agencies that qualify for the accreditation must meet or exceed a set of 166 standards, covering areas including facility management, staff training, inmate management, emergency preparedness and inmate needs such as food, health and physical exercise.
Peter Kehoe, executive director of the Sheriffs Association, said those who work in the county jails work a tough job, spending hours locked behind bars with potentially dangerous people.
"They must protect us from those people but they must also protect those people from each other," Kehoe said. "And they always also have to be mindful that some of the people in their charge are actually innocent. And they also must be mindful that the innocent and the guilty are entitled to safe, humane, respectful treatment when in their charge."
With the recognition, Erie County becomes one of about half the counties throughout New York State that also enjoy the accreditation. Kehoe said the perks include increased performance and morale among deputies, guards and other personnel. It also decreases the likelihood of lawsuits, he suggested.
For Sheriff Howard, the accreditation gives his people an important vote of confidence by a third party.
"An important part in every law enforcement agency is public trust," Howard said. "We can have the public say 'wait a minute, of course the Sheriff is going to tell you how wonderful the agency is.' But when we have outside people coming in and evaluating, the public is more apt to trust it, more apt to accept it. This definitely is not the facility that it was 15 years ago."
Yet the county's jail system has had numerous incidents, including more than 20 deaths in custody, since Howard became Sheriff in 2005. The latest, ruled a suicide, occurred this summer. Last year, the 2012 death of Richard Metcalf while in custody of deputies was ruled a homicide by the state's Commission of Correction, though no criminal charges were filed.
Bernie Tolbert, who is challenging Howard for Sheriff in the November election, released a written statement Tuesday afternoon. In regards to the accreditation, he wrote: "Accreditation of the Erie County Sheriff's Jail Management Division from the New York State Sheriff’s Association, of which Tim Howard is a member and which is not itself a government oversight agency, is nice, but it is not enough. It should have been pursued twelve years ago.
"It doesn’t address the concerns of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the pattern of unexplained deaths at the holding center, the most recent of which occurred in July. It doesn’t address the New York State Commission of Correction’s concerns issued this summer about the sheriff disguising suicides as 'inmate disturbances' or delaying emergency medical crews from attending to medical emergencies in the correctional facility. It doesn’t answer the question raised by the just recently disclosed testimony of sheriff’s deputies in the Richard Metcalf homicide trial, 'why are Erie County Sheriff's Deputies not appropriately trained?'"
Howard was asked specifically about the Metcalf case during his Tuesday news conference.
"The issue you are referring to is prior to this accreditation period," Howard told reporters. "I'm sure you're aware it's pending litigation. Inasmuch as it's pending litigation, and not wanting to impact the potential jury panel, I won't comment about an incident with pending litigation."