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Attorney General James sues Erie County sheriff for allegedly failing to address rampant sexual misconduct in correctional facilities

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Wed, Mar 17th 2021 02:40 pm

AG: Timothy Howard failed to report and appropriately investigate allegations of corrections officers engaging in sexual misconduct

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Erie County and Erie County Sherriff Timothy Howard for “failing to follow mandated procedures to timely and effectively address numerous allegations of sexual misconduct between corrections officers and incarcerated individuals at the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the New York State Commission of Correction (SCOC), identifies eight instances when Howard allegedly “refused to comply with directives requiring his office to timely report allegations of sexual misconduct in the facilities to the SCOC, and, in many cases, doing so only after the allegations surfaced in media reports.” 

James also found the Erie County Sherriff’s Office “conducted insufficient investigations into several of the incidents by neglecting to interview witnesses, evaluate all available evidence, or refer the matters for criminal investigation.”

She said, “Law enforcement agencies across the state have the responsibility to look after the wellbeing of all residents, including incarcerated individuals. For years, the Erie County Sherriff’s Office turned a blind eye to rampant sexual misconduct allegations at its correctional facilities. By refusing to appropriately investigate and report the allegations, the Sherriff’s Office permitted those under their care to be taken advantage of by the very individuals who hold power over them every single day. It is inexcusable that these issues went unaddressed for so long, and it is my hope that our action today will encourage transparency, accountability and diligence moving forward.”

Commission of Correction Chairman Allen Riley said, “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. 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. I thank Attorney General James for her office’s work with commission staff to hold the sheriff’s office accountable for ignoring its obligations and to institute policies that aim to prevent this flagrant behavior from occurring in the future.”

The AG’s press release stated, “New York state has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses committed against any incarcerated individual. State law deems incarcerated individuals as ‘incapable of consent’ to sexual conduct with facility employees, and subjects guards to criminal liability for such conduct. Any sexual contact between a guard and an incarcerated person is deemed nonconsensual under state law, due to the inherent power discrepancy between guards and incarcerated individuals. Accordingly, the SCOC’s guidelines and regulations require local correctional facilities to promptly report serious incidents, including any degree of rape, sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.

“The SCOC maintains regulations and guidelines requiring the timely and adequate reporting of sexual misconduct allegations in correctional facilities to the agency.” After the sheriff’s office allegedly “failed to timely report serious incidents – such as an erroneous release, an assault, and multiple suicide attempts in Erie County facilities – the SCOC issued specific directives, in May 2017, for the county to promptly report serious incidents, or otherwise face a regulatory proceeding in state court. New York codes, rules and regulations, as well as the SCOC’s guidelines, require the sheriff’s office to report alleged sex offenses to the SCOC within 24 hours of occurrence or discovery of the incident. Despite this, the Office of the Attorney General found the sheriff’s office went months or years between discovery of an incident and reporting it to the SCOC.

“In one of the most recent and egregious instances of the delayed reporting of allegations, the sheriff’s office first received complaints regarding the misconduct of five corrections officers on March 15, 2018. Officers Keith Roberts, Ronald Dolyk, John Valenti, Randy Chavanne and Matthew Reardon allegedly had sexual relations with incarcerated women while on duty, brought contraband into the facility, and associated with and had contact with formerly incarcerated women after their release from jail. However, the sheriff’s office did not report these matters to the SCOC until Dec. 10, 2020 – 1,001 days after the allegations were first brought to their attention.

“Today's lawsuit seeks broad injunctive relief, including an order that:

•Enjoins the sheriff’s office from violating the SCOC’s regulations; 

•Directs the sheriff’s office to appoint an independent monitor to conduct a retrospective audit of incident reporting; 

•Directs the sheriff’s office to provide the SCOC with proof of training related to New York’s zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct in correctional facilities, how to handle situations where incarcerated individuals allege sexual misconduct, and the SCOC guidelines for reporting such misconduct; 

•Directs the sheriff’s office to provide specialized training for investigators and other appropriate staff regarding investigating sexual abuse in correctional settings; and

•Develops and/or revises procedures related to the review, investigation and assessment of reportable incidents, and to work with the SCOC to develop and improve upon existing policies and procedures.

This case is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Lindsay McKenzie of the Civil Rights Bureau and Assistant Attorney General Lois Saldana of the Executive Division, under the supervision of Civil Rights Bureau Chief Jessica Clarke. The Civil Rights Bureau is a part of the Division of Social Justice, led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and is under the oversight of First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

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