Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard at times has said publicly he won’t enforce edicts from Albany he doesn’t agree with, like the SAFE Act gun control legislation and, more recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10-person limit on Thanksgiving gatherings.
But to hear Steve Felano tell it, Howard hasn’t gone far enough.
“I've asked for formal, non-enforcement policies that are publicized regarding the various disarmament edicts at play in New York state, and that never happened,” Felano said. “So he takes baby steps towards some of these things, but just doesn't go far enough to have any real impact.”
On Wednesday, Felano announced he’s seeking the Republican Party nomination for Erie County sheriff to replace Howard, a Republican who is not expected to seek reelection in 2021.
Felano, 35, is the founder of Second Amendment group 2ANYS and has been active in recent months protesting Cuomo’s shutdown order and other COVID-19 restrictions.
He’s promising that, if elected, Erie County sheriff deputies will not enforce what he calls unconstitutional state laws, like COVID-19 executive orders and the red flag law, which prevents people who may harm themselves or others from purchasing firearms.
“My approach is going to be very different. It's going to not be about what I'm going to force people to do, but what I'm not going to enforce,” he said. “The focus will be on protecting citizens’ civil rights against overreach from the government.”
Asked to clarify his stance on COVID restrictions, Felano said he believes in “the science on mask wearing and social distancing,” but worries about giving so much authority to the government.
“I'm not thinking of just the short-term — the lives it's going to save this year from not spreading COVID — I'm looking at the long-term body count that's going to be caused through governments generations from now, who are going to use this type of power that we're giving them today to normalize killing civilians down the road,” he said.
For those who believe a sheriff’s job is simply to enforce the laws on the books, Felano claimed they are “absolutely incorrect.” He said a sheriff has a duty to act as a check on the state Legislature.
Felano also said his non-enforcement plan is no different from what Cuomo has done in recent years to fight the Trump administration on immigration enforcement. On Wednesday, Cuomo signed into law legislation that bars Immigrations and Customs Enforcement from making arrests at state courthouses.
“He's picking and choosing which immigration laws at the federal level he wants to apply in New York state. I'm doing the same thing,” Felano said. “I'm just imposing that type of stricture from the county level to the state, whereas he's doing it at the state level to the federal level.”
One of the largest criticisms of Howard has been his handling of the Erie County Holding Center. Approximately 28 inmates have died since Howard took office in 2005 and the state Commission of Correction has called the holding center one of the “most problematic local correctional facilities in the state.”
Felano said he’s in the process of gathering information on the holding center through Freedom of Information Law requests, and is open to holding the prior sheriff’s office regime accountable for their management of the holding center.
“I would appoint a grand jury to take a look at this and review everything,” he said. “And if we can find civil rights violations ... then we would have to take action on that, and we would very aggressively move to take that action.”
Law enforcement experience is not a requirement for sheriff, and Felano doesn’t have any. But, he said he’s done police ride-alongs over the last year and his agenda is based on conversations with officers.
“This is the agenda that patrol officers, the guy on the street doing the job, this is what he wants to see done,” he said. “And they're all extremely agitated that their leadership isn't putting their neck on the line to do these things.”
While defunding the police and allocating resources to social work and mental health has been a rally crying on the left side of the political aisle this year, Felano said he does agree officers right now are being asked to do too much and should solely be focused on protecting people from violence.
“I think that no matter what side of the aisle you come down on, left or right, 2020 has shown us that law enforcement has to change dramatically,” he said. “And a lot of the things I'm talking about here with respect to non-enforcement, this takes officers out of potentially volatile situations that they don't need to be in that could result in a George Floyd-type episode. … The only way that you're going to avoid George Floyd-type situations is to limit the role of police to a very fine point.”
Another candidate also announced his intention to run Wednesday. Long-time Amherst police officer Det. Let. Ted DiNoto, in a Facebook video announcment, said he believes in the Constitution and "will never infringe on your constitutional rights."
"I believe that as sheriff of Erie County, it's my responsibility to enforce laws fairly and firmly," he said.
Petitions for the November 2021 election will begin circulating in February.