BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) — Erie County Sheriff John Garcia has now been in the role for about three months, replacing beleaguered former Sheriff Timothy Howard. The 7 News I-Team has learned that Howard is still on the job, as a clerk, until the end of the month.
It was a choice made by Garcia. But that’s the least of his worries.
For years, the Erie County Detention Center has been the subject of numerous investigations. According to the New York State Commission on Corrections, there have been at least 32 deaths inside the prison under former Sheriff Tim Howard’s tenure.
Newly elected Sheriff John Garcia is aware of the story, promising to ensure the sheriff’s office is in full compliance with all warrants.
“I want to make Erie County the shining star in corrections and highway patrol,” Garcia said.
He says it starts with training and a real tracking system.
“I’m putting a software system in place, which will allow us to track everyone’s training, so when the accreditation comes, we’ll have everything in place,” Garcia told I-Team.
That raised questions for I-Team’s Ed Drantch, who asked if MP training hadn’t been completed until Garcia took office.
“So before my administration, the training consisted of records, paper records, which are obviously outdated, so we’re moving forward, Ed,” Garcia said.
“In reality, before you came here, or when you came here, you would really have no idea if there were papers missing or if there was paper – or if all the papers were there – showing that the deputies were trained in this center outfit,” Drantch questioned.
“Yeah. I have to agree with you on that,” Garcia said. “You know we have a long way to go and when I said I wanted to make the Erie County Sheriff’s Office a 21st century law enforcement agency, I was dead serious at this subject.”
A long way to go, after years of Howard’s overseeing the very system he still works for. Howard is on payroll until March 31. He receives a pro-rated salary of $46,000/year. Garcia says it’s not a golden parachute and totals around $12,000.
“It would be reckless of me not to have someone with the institutional knowledge of almost a quarter century and high-level meetings,” Garcia said. “Like it or not, he’s been our sheriff or undersheriff for a quarter of a century. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge I need to improve this office.”
Garcia says the sheriff’s office is six months behind on gun permits. But the biggest problem, he says, is the staff. The Sheriff is looking to hire for at least 50 vacancies between the Erie County Detention Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility. This is in addition to the 20 vacancies.
“We’re short, very short,” Garcia said. “It’s not that we were at breaking point, we broke it.”
Garcia is aware of recent reports, where the Erie County Comptroller revealed that nine of the top 10 overtime earners were in the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. He attributes this to a severe shortage of staff.
“What happens, Ed, is that for example, a correctional officer who works midnight and is mandated to do four consecutive days of eight overtime overtime, so it’s really not his decision to do any overtime, we mandate them,” García said.
This year, the sheriff is hiring 50 peace officers, between two promotions. he says there will be 25 people in each class. He also submits a resolution to the Erie County Legislature, calling for more staff at Alden Correctional Facility and the Erie County Detention Center. Garcia says his staff can’t maintain the pace at which they are currently operating.
Garcia told I-Team he thinks the staff “…is the only thing that’s holding us back from increasing our programming. [sic] in correctional institutions, with Covid. Our goal is to ensure that everyone in our care participates in a program tailored to their needs.”