BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Erie County Sheriff John Garcia is now about three months into the job, replacing embattled former Sheriff Timothy Howard. The 7 News I-Team has learned, Howard is still on the job, as a clerk, until the end of the month.
That was a choice made by Garcia. But that's the least of his concerns.
For years, the Erie County Holding Center has been the main focus of many investigations. According to the New York State Commission on Corrections, there have been at least 32 deaths inside the jail under former Sheriff Tim Howard's tenure.
Newly elected Sheriff John Garcia is aware of the history, promising to make sure the sheriff's office is in full compliance with all mandates.
"I want to make Erie County the shining star of corrections and road patrol," Garcia said.
He says that starts with training and an actual tracking system.
"I'm putting in place a software system, which will allow us to track everyone's training, so when accreditation comes around we have everything in place," Garcia told the I-Team.
That raised some questions for the I-Team's Ed Drantch, who asked if training for deputies had not been tracked until Garcia came into office.
"So prior to my administration, the training was files, paper files, which obviously are antiquated, so we're moving forward, Ed," Garcia said.
"Realistically, prior to you coming in here, or when you did come in here, you really would have had no idea if some paperwork was missing or some paper was there — or if all paperwork was there — showing deputies were trained in this holding center," Drantch questioned.
"Yes. 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 completely serious about that."
A long way to go, after years of Howard overseeing the very system he's still working for. Howard is on the payroll until March 31. He's making a prorated salary of $46,000/year. Garcia says that is not a golden parachute and totals about $12,000.
"It would be reckless of me not to have somebody with the institutional knowledge of nearly a quarter century and high level meetings," Garcia said. "Like him or not, he was our Sheriff or Undersheriff for a quarter century. That's a lot of institutional knowledge that I need to make this office better."
Garcia says the sheriff's office is six months behind on pistol permits. But the biggest problem, he says, is staffing. The Sheriff is looking to hire for at least 50 open positions between the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility. That's on top of 20 positions that are sitting vacant.
"We're short, very short," Garcia said. "This is not that were at the breaking point, we've broke it."
Garcia is aware of recent reporting, where the Erie County Comptroller exposed nine of 10 highest overtime earners were in the Erie County Sheriff's Office. He blames that on a critical staffing shortage.
"What happens, Ed, is that for example, a corrections officer that works midnight and is mandated to work four straight days of eight hours of additional overtime, so it's really not his or her decision to work the overtime, we are mandating them," Garcia said.
This year the sheriff is hiring 50 peace officers, between two classes. he says there will be 25 people in each class. He's also submitting a resolution to the Erie County Legislature, calling for more staff at the Alden correctional facility and the Erie County Holding Center. Garcia says, his staff cannot maintain the pace it's currently operating at.
Garcia told the I-Team he believes staffing "...is the only thing holding us back from increasing our programing [sic] in the correctional facilities, along with Covid. Our goal is to have everyone that is in our custody to be in a program which is appropriate for their needs."