On December 5, 2019, the Erie County Legislature amended and approved the County’s 2020 Budget. As a part of the budget process, Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson, Chair of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, played a key role in opposing the County Sheriff’s request to create a full time SWAT team.
Legislator Johnson, who joined the Legislature in April 2019, previously worked for the County’s Division of Budget and Management and worked in the banking sector before joining the County. As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, he has been holding hearings and discussions with the Office of Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard all year, probing the deaths of prisoners in the Sheriff’s custody and providing critical oversight of the troubled Sheriff Office.
As part of the 2020 Budget, he immediately flagged discrepancies and gaps in the Sheriff’s request for seven (7) new full time positons for a new full time SWAT team. The Sheriff’s plan is to create a 19 member full time SWAT team by 2022, replacing the existing SWAT team model that has been in place since the team was created in 1973.
“I was first struck that the Sheriff never approached the Legislature and provided any written proposal, plan or request for a new SWAT team model,” said Johnson. “The first time we knew about his plan was when we saw his seven new positions in the proposed 2020 Budget.”
Johnson also noted that only after he sought written documentation explaining and justifying the new positions, did the Sheriff Office provide some data to the Legislature in late November and early December. And that data claimed the Sheriff Office needed a full time SWAT team to reduce overtime costs, but the claim was not supported by any hard, recent data. Based on this, and his private sector financial experience, he felt he could not support the request to add the seven new jobs at this time.
He also noted that the Legislature offered the Sheriff the opportunity to use the funding from approximately 60 vacant jobs in the Sheriff’s Office to help fund a full time SWAT team, instead of asking for new money from taxpayers, but the Sheriff’s Office declined the offer.
The Sheriff’s Office also told the Legislature that a new full time SWAT team was necessary to help re-start a dialogue about regionalized policing in Erie County and they cited many local police departments in Erie County that maintain their own part time SWAT teams. Legislator Johnson told the Sheriff Office that he is open to further dialogue in 2020 about the SWAT team, including possibly meeting with other local police agencies like Buffalo which also have SWAT teams, to discuss the Sheriff’s request.
Legislator Johnson remains committed to supporting law enforcement for the community and he supported the creation of a new position in the Sheriff Office to administer the body camera program that the Democratic Caucus successfully advocated for in 2019 and which will start t in 2020. In addition, two new positions were created for 911 Sheriff dispatchers and three new sheriff deputy positions were created for the “raise the age” youthful offender program, as a well as a new full time aviation mechanic for the Sheriff’s Air One helicopter.
The Democratic Caucus also added new funding totaling $1 million for a new anti-opioid Suboxone medication-assisted drug treatment program (“MAT”) in the County Sheriff’s Jail Management Division (Erie County Holding Center and Correctional Facility). The program will be established with assistance from the Department of Mental Health and used to help prisoners who face both drug addictions and mental health challenges, including suicidal thoughts.
“I am honored to represent the residents of the first legislative district as their county legislator, and to represent the entire community as Chair of the Public Safety Committee. I will continue to carefully examine the Sheriff Office and its spending and operations and hold them accountable,” concluded Johnson.