On Tuesday, August 1, National Night Out Against Crime will take place across Erie County. This annual event is meant to promote police and community partnerships, thereby furthering crime prevention and strengthening neighborhoods. The evening will be replete with parties and gatherings comprised of activities and food for families. Local law enforcement, including our Erie County Sheriff, Tim Howard, will be shaking hands and, ostensibly, promoting cooperation, teamwork, and safety. Yet, since 2005, Sheriff Howard’s policies and practices have shown profound, disturbing lack of accountability and responsibility. When it comes to the genuine safety of all people in Erie County, this single evening cannot, and does not, erase a tenure of lies, deaths, and hate.
Safe communities require authentic collaboration. In 2009, Sheriff Howard shut out the Department of Justice during their investigation into the County jails. The DOJ filed suit to compel the Sheriff’s Office to comply with basic mental health, medical, and environmental standards. Despite rhetoric of community partnership, the Sheriff has not demonstrated the capacity to professionally work with other stakeholders.
Safe communities also require transparency. A few months ago, the Buffalo News released a piece about the Sheriff’s office mislabeling of inmate suicides as “individual disturbances.” When labeled as such, they avoided the overseeing authority of the NYS Commission of Corrections. Lies and secrecy cannot foster safety. They destroy it.
Safe communities are characterized by people’s physical and emotional security. In his tenure as Sheriff, more than 20 people have died in Sheriff Howard’s jails. Most had not been charged with a crime. Many were coping with mental illness.
In addition, the Sheriff’s office has used cell phone surveillance covertly—and typically without a warrant. Our communities, within and outside the jails, are trivialized—not strengthened—by the Sheriff’s actions and omissions.
Safe communities are buoyed by consistency in leadership. In April, Sheriff Howard appeared at a rally, in uniform, in the midst of Confederate symbols and members of the Aryan Renaissance Society. Since then, he has not once denounced the flagrant racism represented. This is grossly inconsistent with the values and beliefs of many folks in Erie County.
I see strong, empowered communities as those that recognize and celebrate all human life and dignity. As a white, suburban woman, I see that Sheriff Howard is unwilling, unable, and closed to authentic community partnerships, despite the language of National Night Out. Lies, death, and racism have no place in our neighborhoods. Sheriff Howard, then, has no place in a safe and sound Erie County. It is my hope that he will put the language of cooperation and collaboration into practice. Absent a substantial change, though, this November, it is my intention to use my vote to show him what a safe community truly looks like.
Josal Diebold lives in Williamsville and is a MSW/PhD student at UB.