Erie County Sheriff’s Office snaps back at state Attorney General’s characterization of consent decree

The superintendent of Erie County’s two jails said the sheriff’s office is disappointed in how the Attorney General’s Office recently characterized an agreement between the two entities that ended a lawsuit brought by the state.

The agreement, announced by the state Attorney General’s Office last week, concerns how the Erie County Sheriff’s Office failed to submit within 24 hours at least eight reportable incidents to the state, particularly allegations made by inmates of sexual misconduct by jail employees.

“The Erie County Sheriff’s Office negotiated in good faith with the Attorney General’s Office to resolve the lawsuit that was filed by the [state Commission of Correction],” said Thomas Diina, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office superintendent of the Jail Management Division.

But the press release, Diina said, “completely mischaracterized that final agreement.”

The headline of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ press release was: Attorney General James Forces Erie County Sheriff to Address Rampant Sexual Misconduct in Correctional Facilities.

But Diina said no one forced the sheriff’s office to do anything.

“It’s very unfortunate that the press release is going to lead the public to believe that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office was uncooperative when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Diina said.

“Also, the Attorney General’s Office is well aware of the fact that there is not rampant sexual misconduct in the correctional facilities.”

Indeed, in May, News 4 Investigates reported that since 2017, the sheriff’s office sent the state at least 3,400 incident reports of all different types of issues, not just sexual misconduct allegations. The cases cited in the lawsuit by the attorney general make up a small percentage of the total number, Diina said.

“Another disappointment was the fact that with no explanation, the Attorney General’s Office would not agree to include the statistics that we provided to them demonstrating the fact that we do file incident reports with the state Commission of Correction,” Diina said.

“Those that were failed to report constitutes 0.2% of the reported incidents.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined interview requests but emailed a prepared statement to News 4 Investigates that reiterated much of what they included in the press release.

“Our lawsuit and the subsequent settlement are the direct result of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office’s longstanding failure to address widespread sexual misconduct perpetrated by its correction officers at its facilities,” said the Attorney General’s Office.

“As a result of our actions, the sheriff’s office will now be required to implement measures to prevent this misconduct and ensure it is reported in an adequate and timely manner. New York has a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct of any kind, and that includes any sexual abuse by those in positions of power.”

According to the agreement, the sheriff’s office failed to ensure that it conducted “proper review, investigation, and assessments of several incidents and failed to ensure that the Sheriff’s Office submitted timely Reportable Incident forms for several reportable incidents,” in violation of state law.

The agreement ends the lawsuit and avoids what could have been costly, drawn out litigation.

The agreement requires the sheriff’s office to take new steps, including the hiring of an outside monitor to audit policies and procedures.

The monitor, at a minimum, will ensure that the sheriff’s office has the following:

adequate policy on timely, accurate, reporting to commission, and on referral of matters concerning sex offenses for criminal investigations;guidelines on when and how body cavity strip searches can be done, and that any sex offense allegation involving such searches is sent to the commission;guidelines to preserve investigative files and video footage; andguidelines on protection of reporting incarcerated people from retaliation; anda requirement that these types of investigations be memorialized and completed by adequately trained staff.

The sheriff’s office must propose a monitor within 30 days, and the commission can approve or reject the pick. Whomever is selected will be retained for three years, the agreement required.

Diina said the sheriff’s office already has many of these policies in place, but the monitor will take a hard look at them to ensure they are sufficient.

“It’s always a good opportunity to have somebody look at what you already have in place to see if there is room for improvement,” Diina said.

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