The idea that Erie County’s two jails no longer need an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints is premature, at best.
The office of ombudsman was proposed after a series of troubling incidents at the jails, including a spate of inmate suicides, the infamous escape of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips from the Correctional Facility and a shocking video earlier in the year that apparently showed sheriff’s deputies beating up an inmate.
So, the statement by Timothy R. Hogues, chairman of the County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, that an ombudsman isn’t necessary because the new jail superintendent is focused on “a greater level of transparency” came as a bit of a surprise.
To his credit, Hogues, a Buffalo Democrat and early supporter of the post, did leave open the option of an ombudsman in the future.
In the meantime, he pointed to progress since the appointment of Thomas Diina as jail superintendent. That progress is in the form of promises of transparency and accountability. Promises are welcome, but need to be backed up by action.
Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant has requested that the ombudsman position and several related proposals remain on the table. And that’s good.
Diina got the job on an interim basis in June, and was formally appointed last month to replace Robert A. Koch Jr., who left after admitting that he gave false information for a police report about vandalism to his county-issued car.
There has been a critical need to prevent jail management from ignoring complaints or turning a blind eye to assaults. If the new jail superintendent is willing to be reasonable and do his job, elements missing in the past, hiring an ombudsman at about $200,000 a year may not be necessary. Money is scarce.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has opposed creation of an ombudsman because, he says, there are plenty of ways to lodge complaints about the jails. But those avenues, including the formal jail grievance process and the community liaison deputies, all go through the Sheriff’s Office. That means the sheriff would essentially be investigating himself, a conflict of interest that the promised accountability and transparency could overcome.
So far, Diina has said the right things and listened to suggestions, but based on the past, it is fair to remain skeptical. Time will tell if Diina follows through and looks into complaints impartially. If it turns out to be business as usual, the way the ombudsman legislation is written allows the fire to get turned up immediately.