For all the degrees, awards and commendations on his résumé, Timothy B. Howard has experienced a rough ride since becoming sheriff of Erie County in 2006.
Critics blame him for overtime costs and a rash of suicides in the Holding Center he oversees, and they question his response to a federal lawsuit over jail conditions.
Then there’s the Bucky Phillips saga – when a lifelong criminal sneaked out of a county jail in 2006, only to kill a state trooper.
And when Albany passed one of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation early this year, Howard announced he would not go out of his way to enforce it.
Nevertheless, the career law enforcement officer – a Republican – approaches the Nov. 5 election against two opponents buoyed by several advantages. With money, name recognition, divided opposition and a quiver full of answers to shoot back at critics, Howard is making his case with voters.
Howard says the Sheriff’s Office is now a smoother operation after he inherited – and has dealt with – many problems.
“We’ve had some not-so-pleasant history here,” Howard said a few days ago.
At 63, Howard is seeking a third term as head of a major law enforcement organization with more than 1,000 members. He wants to cap a long career that began as a patrolman with the Gowanda police and extended through the ranks of the State Police all the way to staff inspector.
Now he faces Democrat Richard E. Dobson and minor party candidate Bert D. Dunn in what is proving to be a spirited contest.
And if it’s spirited, it’s because Howard has joined a cadre of other upstate sheriffs who question the constitutionality of the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act, and vow to banish its enforcement from the top of their priority lists.
Howard questions whether the law will have any effect, whether reducing clip capacity from 10 bullets to seven will resolve gun violence, and why mental health professionals must forfeit confidentiality through the requirement to report suspicions about their patient’s potential for violence.
“Will there be strict enforcement?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”
Howard said he cannot envision his deputies inspecting weapons to determine clip capacity, or prosecuting a grandmother for giving a gun to a grandson without following all SAFE Act requirements.
“If I had someone arrest that woman for giving a gun to her grandson, I wish he would work somewhere else,” the sheriff said.
Dobson criticizes Howard for selective enforcement and for imposing his own view of constitutionality on the citizens of Erie County.
“I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Dobson said. “So when it comes to the SAFE Act, I will enforce it. It’s the job of a policeman to enforce the law.
“It’s up to judges to decide what is constitutional and what is unconstitutional,” he added. “You don’t get to pick and choose the laws you want to uphold.”
But the sheriff says his approach to the new gun law will prove no different from officer discretion during a routine traffic stop. And he equates the SAFE Act to other laws that are rarely enforced.
“When was the last time anyone was arrested for adultery?” he asked. “Yet that law remains on the books.”
Support from Gallivan
Howard says that while the state closes mental health facilities and reduces its mental health budget, it now focuses on gun control for political reasons.
“It’s just a smoke screen to convince the public we’ve done something,” he said, “when we’ve really squandered an opportunity to do something meaningful.”
Howard unabashedly states he is the most qualified. He boasts a master’s degree in criminal justice, served with the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and commanded troopers in Ray Brook and Sidney – top assignments in an elite police organization.
Supporters such as State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, a friend since their State Police days, say Howard brings a sense of dedication and integrity to the Sheriff’s Office – exactly why the then-sheriff selected him as undersheriff in 1998.
“He’s one of the most honorable, decent and intelligent human beings you would want to know,” Gallivan said. “He has a good sense of right and wrong, and those are values to be admired.”
The senator also acknowledges the controversies dogging Howard at 10 Delaware Ave. But he said that Howard took over as sheriff in the wake of the “red and green budget” crisis under former then-County Executive Joel A. Giambra and that many of the resulting problems have been corrected. In addition, he said, it has always proven to be a struggle for the sheriff to obtain the proper resources to staff and run the Holding Center.
“A historical problem was exacerbated by the red and green budget,” Gallivan said.
Howard advances much the same argument. He says the new central booking facility in Buffalo City Court has substantially decreased the Holding Center population and the need for overtime.
‘The most perfect storm’
While Dobson says the county needs more deputies, Howard would not disagree – he just points to reality. The county would need to hire 67 more deputies, he said, to meet overtime requirements.
“Taking 75 people out of the building is pretty significant in taking off the pressure,” Howard said. “But the problem didn’t go away; it just went to Buffalo.”
The sheriff said he has never wanted a “hotel” for Holding Center inmates, but continues to object to the way the U.S. Department of Justice pressed its suit against the county. County attorneys found themselves in a no-win situation and settled.
However, Howard said, problems were bound to result from reductions across several law enforcement functions of county government, pointing to major cutbacks in both the regular workforce and management throughout most of his early administration.
“They created the most perfect storm possible, and it all rested on me,” he said.
‘Doing better’ on jail issues
When the lawsuit was finally over, he found himself pleased with the results.
“I’m in favor of the end,” he said. “The means were questionable.”
Howard may have faced his most trying days during a string of inmate suicides that raised an outcry in some segments of the community.
And while many observers believe that conditions have improved and new steps taken to prevent inmates from taking their lives while in custody, Dobson still raises questions.
The Democrat says he hears too many cavalier attitudes from people who don’t appear to care what conditions inmates face in jail.
“It annoys … me when I hear that,” Dobson said. “The person who kills himself in jail is one of five who has problems that need to be addressed. When you have a rash of (suicides), there is something wrong with the system.”
But after the Justice Department agreement addressed many concerns, Howard said, the system is working better. Reduced overtime allows for a more alert staff, he said, while screening for drug problems is now conducted by medical professionals and not officers. This means that incoming inmates are not confessing drug abuse to law enforcement.
It all adds up to better conditions, Howard insists.
“If the occurrence of suicide is an indication we were doing bad,” he said, “the absence of suicide shows we’re doing better.”
Of the three candidates running for sheriff, Howard has proved the most adept at fundraising – receiving about $140,000 this year from a vast list of donors. That has proven more than enough to air a string of television ads, even if he may yet be outspent by the largely self-financed Dunn.