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I-Team: Erie County Sheriff’s deputies caught sleeping on the job multiple times

Most inside Erie County Holding Center
Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 12:00:10-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Serious incidents like assaults, sex offenses or deaths occurred more than 400 times in the Erie County Holding Center in 2019, according to data from the State Commission of Correction.

But while these “reportable incidents” were happening more than once per day on average, some Erie County Sheriff’s deputies were not awake to see them.

That’s because instead of being on high alert in one of Western New York’s most notorious jails, the sheriff’s deputies were fast asleep.

Multiple times in recent years, Erie County Sheriff’s supervisors caught deputies sleeping on the job when they should have been doing their rounds, according to internal disciplinary documents obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team.

But not once in the last three years did the misconduct cost any of the deputies their jobs.

“It’s very concerning coming from the correction end of it,” said Thomas A. Beilein, retired chairman of the State Commission of Correction. “You’re talking about the health, safety and security of the whole facility.”

The I-Team analyzed three years of disciplinary records provided by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office through a Freedom of Information Law request. The records showed that from 2018 to 2020, three sheriff’s deputies were cited for sleeping on duty in the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and one corrections officer was cited for sleeping on duty in the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

Two particular cases stand out because they were not one-time offenses, but rather part of a pattern of sleeping on the job.

Deputy Salvatore Vaccaro

On Feb. 21, 2019, Vaccaro did not perform his rounds in the Erie County Holding Center at three half-hour intervals. His log book stated that he did perform the rounds, “but upon reviewing video evidence, it is clear that you did not complete them,” sheriff’s officials wrote in disciplinary documents.

Deputy Salvatore Vaccaro

Vaccaro, who was hired in 2016, received a letter of reprimand in April 2019 for missing the tours. Officials told Vaccaro in the letter that it was “essential that you remain observant of the inmates in your assigned area. Your failure to do so jeopardized the safety and security of the facility and could have led to irreparable consequences.”

Just three months later, though, Vaccaro was being hauled in for another disciplinary hearing after allegations that he violated six Sheriff’s Office policies, including unbecoming conduct, violation of rules and sleeping on duty.

On July 26, 2019, disciplinary documents obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team show, Vaccaro admitted that he was sleeping on duty, that he failed to complete his log entries “in a timely manner” and that he extended his lunch break “beyond the allotted time.”

During the disciplinary hearing, documents show, Vaccaro “stated that because of [his] inability to get enough rest before [his] shift, due to circumstances outside of [his] control, [he] had difficulty staying alert during [his] shift.”

Vaccaro, who makes $60,000 per year, was suspended without pay for five days and pledged to ask a watch commander to relieve him if he felt too tired to stay awake in the future.

But less than two months after that, on Sept. 4, 2019, Vaccaro violated policy for a third time when he was again found to be sleeping on duty, documents show.

Vaccaro was charged with six internal violations, including unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty, unsatisfactory performance and insubordination for sleeping on duty and “fail[ing] to provide constant supervision to the inmates” he was assigned to observe.

The disciplinary records noted that Vaccaro was previously suspended for “identical misconduct” and his “failure to maintain constant supervision of high-risk inmates.”

Click here to read Deputy Vaccaro's disciplinary records for these cases.

Vaccaro was fired that same day and told to clean out his locker, but that wasn’t the end of his employment.

One day after Vaccaro’s termination, a representative from Teamsters Local Union No. 264 filed a grievance, stating that Vaccaro “was currently being treated by his personal physician for a medical condition and asked for help during his treatment.”

The union rep recommended that Vaccaro be reinstated and put under an employee assistance program, and on Nov. 21, 2019, Sheriff’s Office officials reinstated him under a “last-chance agreement” by which he would have "one last and final [chance]" to remain employed as a sheriff’s deputy.

The agreement places Vaccaro on an 18-month probationary period which ends in May 2021. If he is again found to have committed misconduct during that period, he will be fired, the document states.

“The Jail Management Division follows the principles of progressive discipline in accordance with policy and current collective bargaining agreements,” Thomas Diina, superintendent of the sheriff’s jail management division said in a written statement. “While at times we are able to arrive at a mutually agreeable and appropriate disciplinary sanction with said labor unions, there are instances when we cannot. Disciplinary sanctions are subject to arbitration so we strive to impose same [sic] in a manner that is likely to withstand the review and scrutiny of an arbitrator.”

But Vaccaro, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, isn’t the only deputy who has fallen asleep on duty but kept his job.

Deputy Lakeemen Jones

Deputy Lakeemen Jones also missed his watch tours in the Holding Center multiple times, according to sheriff’s disciplinary records.

On May 19, 2019, documents state that Jones failed to complete his supervisory watch tours in the Gulf East area of the Erie County Holding Center during four separate periods during his 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

Deputy Lakeemen Jones

Sheriff’s supervisors said Jones, who was hired in 2016, was observed “laying back in a chair seemingly sleeping” and admitted to missing his rounds four times every 15 minutes between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

After 4 a.m., documents stated that Jones was again “inattentive toward your duties...while positioning yourself in the Gulf East medical exam room where you claimed to be suffering from a headache.”

After emerging from the exam room, documents state that Jones “then falsified the housing area log to reflect that the aforementioned watch tours were completed as if they had been done properly.”

According to the transcript of a June 26, 2019 disciplinary hearing, a supervisor reminded Jones that he was disciplined twice before for missing watch tours: once in June 2017 with a verbal counsel and again in January 2018 with a letter of counsel.

Jones, who makes $60,000 per year, also acknowledged during the hearing that he was working the second half of a “swap” or a voluntary double shift on June 26, 2019, and he acknowledged that he did not attempt to notify his supervisor that he wasn’t feeling well.

“I want to start off by saying there is no excuse for what happened,” Jones stated during the hearing. “That particular night I had a massive headache and I took a lot of Tylenol. I tried to just go in the medical room and dim the lights so I could get out of the bright lights and get the headache to calm down.”

Deputy Mark Hajnos of Teamsters Local #264 defended Jones during the hearing, telling supervisors, “I have worked alongside Deputy Jones a handful of times and in my experience he has been alert and attentive to his duties. He had a rough night and I think we’ve all had an off day.”

Hajnos also noted that Jones “has been put on notice and and taken ownership of his mistakes and fully understands the liability these errors could present to himself, his superiors and the department as a whole.”

Click here to read Deputy Jones' disciplinary records for these cases.

The union representative pleaded for leniency and the sheriff agreed.

Diina, in a letter to Jones two days after the disciplinary hearing, noted that “such misconduct warrants termination, however by agreement between Teamsters Local 264, The Erie County Sheriff’s Office and yourself, you are to be suspended without pay for a period of three days…”

In return for the light suspension, Jones, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and the union agreed not to challenge the penalty through the grievance or arbitration process.

Brian Dickman, president of Teamsters Local #264, declined to comment for this story.

Arbitration looms over discipline

Beilein, the former Niagara County Sheriff, said the threat of arbitration by employee unions can cause sheriff’s officials to settle for a lighter form of discipline even in cases where they believe the employee deserves to be fired.

“Sometimes you settle for less than what you would want in the way of discipline to avoid going that next step to arbitration,” Beilein said. “Because arbitrators have a history of finding in favor of the employee. It’s very hard to sustain termination with a public employee.”

Still, such behavior can lead to dangerous consequences in jails like the holding center, he said.

“You could have an inmate going into some kind of physical distress that is not being picked up by the deputy not making his rounds,” he said. “You could have an inmate realizing that there’s nobody making their rounds do other things. Escape attempts could happen during that time.”

Police agencies are required to notify the State Commission of Correction each time a “reportable incident” occurs in a county jail. Those include assaults, sex offenses, deaths, fires, escapes, hospitalizations of inmates and outbreaks of contagious illnessesses.

In 2019, when most of the deputies were caught sleeping on the job, there were 416 reportable incidents in the Erie County Holding Center and 103 reportable incidents in the Erie County Correctional Facility, according to a state spokeswoman.

In addition to the safety risks, allowing workers who repeatedly violate regulations to remain on the job sends the wrong message to other employees, Beilein said.

“It hurts when you have to bring an employee back that has committed an egregious violation, and the other employees who go about their job everyday and work hard everyday see that, and they see that as…’Well, you know, nothing can happen to me,’” he said.