The Erie County Legislature's Public Safety Committee invited Sheriff Timothy Howard to face questions Thursday about alleged acts of misconduct by personnel within his department. The Sheriff defended his Office's professional standards procedures in a nearly two-hour meeting that got heated at times.
Legislators quickly tabled all legislation on the agenda for later discussion, including the proposed Jail Management Transparency and Accountability Act. But with Sheriff Howard and Undersheriff John Greenan present for the online committee meeting, lawmakers presented questions about numerous incidents involving deputies or jail attendees, and sought explanations for how the accused were disciplined.
Several cases were raised. They included the trial of a deputy charged in relation to a violent arrest of a young man outside a Buffalo Bills game, a deputy charged with DUI after crashing an unmarked Sheriff's vehicle, male jailhouse attendants allegedly engaging in sexual liaisons with female inmates, the use of resources by a deputy to spy on his girlfriend and a Buffalo Bisons player, and an off-duty corrections officer accused of threatening violence against street protesters.
Howard insisted there was nothing to substantiate claims of sexual liaisons among corrections officers and inmates while in jail, but suggested there may have been contact with inmates following their release.
Legislator Jeanne Vinal focused he questions on the trial of former deputy Kenneth Achtyl, who was charged in a December 2017 incident outside what was then New Era Field. Achtyl was later convicted of assault and other counts in an Orchard Park courtroom. Sheriff Howard was present for the trial, and Vinal asked whether his attendance was to root for Achtyl's acquittal. Howard took exception to that.
“My reason for being there was so that I, myself, could hear firsthand from all of the witnesses that were being called, and all of the work that might have been done by my own internal affairs," he said. "I was hearing that done by a different set of professionals, both the defense attorneys as well as the prosecutors, that asked the questions of all of the different witnesses that were there, so I could make my own decision as to what happened in that case.”
The sheriff accused Vinal and other lawmakers of becoming too political in their questions and comments. Howard also shared a testy exchange with Legislature Chair April Baskin when the questions focused on the deputy accused of DUI while driving an official vehicle.
“He wasn’t found that. That's a matter of yet for the court to determine, but, but do you wish to state at this point that you believe all accusations are true, or do you believe in the criminal justice system that exists in New York State?” Howard asked Baskin.
She replied, “Mr. Sheriff, no, because I don't necessarily have to answer your questions. You were invited here to answer our questions. Do you understand that Mr. Sheriff? Do you understand that?”
“I'm here by invitation. And if this isn't a two-way discussion that's open and honest, then I'll conclude it right now,” Howard answered.
He didn't end his appearance, but instead stayed to field questions for about another half hour.
When asked about suspensions and arbitration in disciplinary matters, Undersheriff John Greenan explained that union contracts often determine how they may discipline an individual. There are also concerns for how an arbitrator may later alter or reverse a decision made by the Sheriff's own Professional Standards office.
Greenan was at Howard's side to answer numerous questions, including one about who reviews the reviewers within that office.
"How often, Mr. Sheriff, do you go in and review their professional standards?” Baskin asked.
“That's done by the Undersheriff," Howard replied. "I do not do that.”
“How often does he do it?” Baskin followed.
After some chatter with Greenan, Howard replied that his undersheriff communicates with that office daily by telephone, and is present in that office about two or three times per week.