Legislature meeting about Cummings death turns from discussion of details to policy review

Officials from Erie County's Department of Health, Department of Mental Health, Holding Center and Jail, and the County Attorney's office answer questions at a Public Safety Committee session.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

The death of 27-year-old India Cummings after more than two weeks at the Erie County Holding Center in 2016 was in the spotlight at County Hall on Wednesday, with criticism of the care and treatment of inmates there taking center stage.

A detailed review of the New York State Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board report on Cummings’ death was supposed to be the focus of Wednesday’s meeting of the County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee.

“What this report showcases is a systems failure,” said Committee Chair and Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin during opening statements. “Far too often, in many points of Ms. Cummings’ arrest to her death, where we see in this report where our system failed her. The purpose of today is to allow the Public Safety Committee to ask questions that will help us understand procedures, not just for India Cummings, but for public safety for us all.”

Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke expresses frustration over lack of details to Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

The South Buffalo representative was among the many legislators questioning Sheriff Tim Howard, Jail Management Division Superintendent Thomas Diina and county Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney and several others for more than two hours. But midway through the meeting, Burke expressed frustration with its progress.

“A basic question, whether you agree or disagree with the findings of the report – and most of the answers have been, ‘We can’t get into the specifics. I don’t have that information in front of me.’ So, respectfully, most of the questions have not been answered in any detail and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to be," Burke said. "I think we’re all here to seek the truth and acknowledge that a woman has died. There’s a damaging report that puts fault on the Sheriff’s office.”

Because details of Cummings’ death are part of an ongoing claim against the county by the Cummings family, many of the officials either said they could not answer or were advised not to by Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker.

“I’m here to protect the county’s interest and, to the extent that protecting the county’s interest means not commenting in this particular forum on the subject of a matter that is in active litigation, then I’m going to do my job,” said Parker.

The focus quickly shifted toward questions of policy and procedure at the downtown holding center and how its inmates are treated.

Because the report detailed Cummings’ mental state during her time in custody, one of the key questions was how such concerns are identified. Ranney said inmates are screened by medical staff.

Erie County Commissioner of Mental Health Michael Ranney fielded numerous questions on the assessment and treatment of mental health at the Erie County Holding Center.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

“Each is seen by a nursing staff and there is a review of the jail management system," Ranney explained, "and based on that information as well as a screening that’s performed, it is a screening by the state that relates to the potential of suicide risk as well as intake information related to mental health as well as addiction and physical care."

Ranney said assessments are then made according to whether the inmate is a harm to him or herself and how soon he or she would need to be seen by mental health providers.

As Baskin proceeded, paragraph by paragraph, through the 33-page state report, her inquiries also turned to the training given to corrections officers and the procedures they use at the holding center. She asked Diina how he would suggest she determine whether reform is needed.

“I would invite you to spend the day with me within the jail and I could review anything you would like to review," replied Diina. "I would take you through the facility, show you how each piece of the operation works and make myself and my staff available to answer any questions you may have regarding same.”

Diina said policies and procedures of the holding center are not generally made known to the public, but he said legislators could meet privately with him to discuss them.

After the meeting ended, Baskin told reporters some progress was made in the meeting.

“We were able to point out some areas where we can improve and tighten up on policies and procedures,” said Baskin. “A lot of things that I found out today are up to the discretion of professionals in administration here in the county, and I think the legislature can participate in structuring some things and getting some things in writing, so that not everything is up to someone’s individual discretion.”

Erie County Legislator and Public Safety Committee Chair April Baskin spoke to reporters following the committee's meeting.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Baskin said she would be spending the next month, during the Legislature’s recess, working with her colleagues to develop a reform package that could potentially be passed as local law.

“There are several different resolutions that we can pass to start to move people to start to do a better job protecting the basic human rights, human survival rights that people have when they are detained in our local jails,” said Baskin.

While members of the public were allowed to attend Wednesday’s meeting, there was no period for their comment. Baskin, instead, has arranged for a community meeting to discuss the state report on Cummings at the Delevan Grider Community Center on August 2 at 6 p.m.