Lawsuit over sexual misconduct reporting in jails settled

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — New York state officials have agreed to settle a lawsuit that accused the Erie County Sheriff’s Office of improperly responding to reports of sexual misconduct involving staff and inmates at the county jails, Attorney General Letitia James said Friday.

The agreement requires the sheriff's department to quickly report and investigate allegations of sexual contact, as mandated by state law, and to ensure staff are trained on New York's zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct in correctional facilities.

James sued the sheriff's office on behalf of the State Commission of Correction in March, saying the office had an “abysmal track record” of complying with requirements to report serious incidents to the commission. The department often went months or years before filing reports, the lawsuit said, in some cases filing only after allegations surfaced in media reports.

State law deems people who are behind bars as “incapable of consent” because of the inherent power discrepancy. It requires that alleged sex offenses be reported within 24 hours.

The lawsuit outlined eight cases of improperly submitted reports and said all but one had been filed only after the Commission of Correction inquired.

“As part of this settlement, the sheriff finally comes clean and admits his failure to comply with regulations that are designed to protect the safety of individuals in custody, facility staff and the community," the commission's chairman, Allen Riley, said in a news release.

A spokesman for Sheriff Timothy Howard did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment. Howard, a Republican, is not seeking reelection.

James, a Democrat, said the agreement is meant to end "the widespread sexual misconduct perpetrated by (the department's) correction officers.”

The agreement submitted to Erie County Supreme Court requires the sheriff's office and county to appoint an independent monitor to conduct a retrospective audit of incident reporting, and provide an annual audit for the next three years. The county also must work with the commission to improve procedures for for investigating and assessing incidents.

The lawsuit followed a 2017 finding that the sheriff's office had failed to properly report other types of serious incidents, including an erroneous release, an assault, and multiple suicide attempts in the Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility.