Erie County Sheriff’s Office addresses state allegations for first time

Investigates

Superintendent of county jails tells News 4 Investigates that for context, they are being criticized for failing to file eight reports out of more than 3,400 sent during that time frame

Erie County Sheriff’s Office officials admit that mistakes were made at times, but they contend the narrative that they are covering up serious incidents in their two jails “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

A lawsuit recently filed by the Attorney General on behalf of the state Commission on Correction accuses the sheriff’s office of failing to report serious incidents within 24 hours or not including key details in the reports.

For example, the lawsuit accuses the sheriff’s office of failing to report in a timely manner an allegation that a jail sergeant was having inappropriate contact with a female inmate both while on the job, and off the job after the female inmate got released.

The sheriff’s office operates the holding center in downtown Buffalo and a the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

Another allegation is that the sheriff’s office was late in reporting a second serious incident by more than two years.

Addressing the allegations in the lawsuit for the first time, Undersheriff John Greenan told News 4 Investigates that the state treats their agency differently than others across the state, and that this bad blood with the Commission of Correction has existed for about a decade.

He accused the commission of withholding details on some of the eight reportable incidents that are the subject of the lawsuit, that would have cast the sheriff’s office in a less-negative light.

“Based on our conversations with those other sheriff’s, it clearly appears that rules that are interpreted one way here in Erie County are interpreted a different way in other sheriff’s offices across the state,” Greenan said.

“I’d be dishonest if I said that there hasn’t been a bit of a contentious relationship between the Commission on Correction and the sheriff’s office.”

The commission declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

The state is asking a judge to compel the sheriff’s office to do the following:

  • Appoint an independent monitor to audit serious incident reporting at the two facilities.
  • Provide proof of training of correctional officers on the state’s zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct in jails, among other training.
  • Provide specialized training for the Office of Professional Standards, an internal division of the sheriff’s office, that investigates each complaint.
  • Develop or revise procedures for investigating and reviewing reportable incidents, and to work with the commission to develop and improve existing policies and procedures.

In some instances, the state alleges the sheriff’s office was late reporting some of the complaints by more than a year, and one late by more than two years.  

“The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has an abysmal track record of complying with the requirement to notify the commission of incidents that jeopardize the safety and wellbeing of individuals in custody, facility staff and the community,” said Commission of Correction Chairman Allen Riley, in a prepared statement.

“This latest failure to report and properly investigate allegations of crimes committed within the Erie County Holding Center and Correctional Facility is particularly egregious: There can be no consent when someone is incarcerated.” 

Erie County Sheriff’s Office history with the commission

This is not the sheriff’s office first run-in with the commission.

In May 2017, the state accused the sheriff’s office of failing to report serious incidents in a timely manner, including a significant assault of an inmate by another inmate, multiple inmate suicide attempts, and an escape.

Those incidents, and others, landed the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on the commission’s “Worst Offenders Report.”

The commission ordered the sheriff’s office to follow several new directives that would help it achieve compliance with reporting rules.

By June 7, 2017, the commission had deemed the corrective measures instituted by the sheriff’s office as acceptable.

“But, as further detailed below, Respondents did not comply with the Directives,” states the AG’s lawsuit, which specifically mentions investigative reporting by the Buffalo News.

For example, the lawsuit accuses the sheriff’s office of failing to report eight serious incidents within 24 hours.

The allegations include:

  • On April 13, 2018, a sergeant at the holding center broke the jaw of an inmate while attempting to remove something that he had placed in his mouth and strip searched him. The inmate later told his parole officer that he had been sexually assaulted. The lawsuit alleges the sheriff’s office did file a report but failed to mention the strip search.
  • Failing to report alleged sexual misconduct between Sgt. Robert Dee and two female inmates. The state also criticized the internal investigation, accusing jail administration of not collecting or ignoring evidence.
  • The sheriff’s office failed to report in a timely manner the complaints of a sexual nature leveled against four correctional officers, including having sexual relations with female inmates while on duty, bringing in contraband and having contact with some of those inmates after their release. Two of the officers were disciplined, one resigned and the allegation against a fourth officer was deemed unfounded.

Complaints against the commission

Thomas Diina, superintendent of the sheriff’s office jail management division, told News 4 Investigates that the reporting rules are open to different interpretations.

“The great frustration that I, along with several of my colleagues in New York State, have with the Commission of Correction is they will change the way they interpret something without any advance notice,” Diina said.

“So, it’s like you’re playing a baseball game and the umpire decides to change how he’s calling balls and strikes rather than giving an advance of the change.”

For example, Diina said one of the rules of the reporting requirements for sexual abuse or sexual harassment allegations is that the conduct is found to be at the level of being a crime. But the commission argues that all incidents of this nature must be reported within 24 hours.

“So, again, if you’re making a good faith effort, you’re going to look at that standard [and determine if] this set of circumstances rise to the level of being reportable? And then take action based on that,” Diina said.  

In some cases, the sheriff’s office was in regular contact with a commission representative on a few of the eight cases highlighted by the state, but these details did not make it into the lawsuit.

News 4 Investigates obtained emails through a Freedom of Information request between the sheriff’s office and a commission representative.

Some of the emails show a sheriff’s office official informing a commission associate of details of incidents that the lawsuit alleges they were more than a year late in reporting.

For example, in May 2018, a sheriff’s office official notified a commission associate that they had learned additional information “related to one of the contemporaneous sexual abuse investigations” that a different correctional officer may have had an inappropriate off-duty relationship with a former female inmate.

“This issue had been closed and disciplinary action taken, however, based upon the new information it now appears that [the correctional officer] lied … with regard to the extent of his off duty relationship with a former inmate that he met while she was incarcerated and he was supervising her housing area at the ECCF,” the May 31, 2018, email to a commission official states.

But the lawsuit alleges that the state did not get any details of this case until Dec. 10, 2020, or 1,001 days late.

That is misleading, Diina said.

One of the problems, Diina said, is the online portal the state uses for sheriff offices across the state to file reportable incidents.

Diina said they cannot add any new findings or information to a case already in the portal.

In other words, if the investigation in the first 24 hours turns up minimal information, Diina said there is no easy way of adding new details to the case file through the portal.

The documents obtained by News 4 Investigates show that in some cases, the sheriff’s office used emails to report and communicate with the commission.

Diina also points out that since 2017, the sheriff’s office has filed thousands of incident reports to the commission and only eight are cited in the lawsuit.

“We make every effort to report incidents accurately to the commission,” Diina said.

“And we actually go above and beyond tracking incidents within the facility because again, many incidents don’t rise to the level of being reportable to the state commission.”

Transparency Act for the jails?

Erie County legislator and majority leader Timothy Meyers has long been a critic of the sheriff’s office. He has his own solution to what he believes is a transparency problem at the sheriff’s office.

“That’s why I am pushing for I’m pushing for that Jail Transparency Act,” Meyers said.

The transparency act, which is being debated in committee, would require the jail division to report all serious incidents that already go to the commission to the county legislature, as well.

“So, we’re not finding out these things like we’re finding out now, two months, three months, five years, six years down the road,” Meyers said.

Since news reports of the controversy and the lawsuit being filed, the sheriff’s office has seen a significant increase in the number of allegations filed by inmates that are of a sexual nature.

Data provided to News 4 Investigates shows that the sheriff’s office has 42 allegations so far this year.

That is more than both 2019 and 2020 combined.

What is noteworthy is that two inmates are responsible for 15 of those complaints, a jail administrator told News 4.

Of the 42 allegations, about half have been deemed unfounded. The remaining allegations are still being investigated. By law, the sheriff’s office must investigate every allegation, and Diina said the investigators do not go into any of these cases with a preconceived notion despite some of the shenanigans they believe go on in the jails.

As a result, Diina said there should be repercussions for any inmate who is found to have filed a false complaint.

“In this environment, folks are looking to improve their situation, affect maybe where they’re houses, who they are housed with,” Diina said.

“And so, they will seek out avenues to affect their situation. … there needs to be a deterrent to filing false allegations.”

As the lawsuit moves its way through the courts, Diina said the undersheriff has already come up with a policy that should save the sheriff’s office from ever again being accused of not reporting an incident in a timely manner.

The undersheriff issued an order that regardless of whether an incident rises to a reportable one, the sheriff’s office will submit it to the commission anyways.

“So, everything that we capture in an internal incident report is going to be sent to the state,” Diina said.

“We are not going to be accused of underreporting hiding, deliberately trying to cover things up by the Commission of Correction ever again,” he said.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.

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