Today, Erie County Legislature Majority Leader, April Baskin, held a press conference calling on Acting Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, to commence an investigation into the death of India Cummings. This comes after the Commission of Corrections reported in July of this year that India’s death was a homicide. It takes a lot of guts to take on an issue like this, and, as someone who has done a fair amount of research and work in the area of prisoners’ rights, I applaud the Majority Leader’s call for justice. Well done, April!
Keep reading for a refresher on the India Cummings case and an analysis of the Commission on Corrections’ report.
When I ran for office last year, one of my platform issues was auditing the Sheriff’s department. I felt this was absolutely critical, as this department faces scrutiny from state and national officials due to its extremely high number of deaths since Sheriff Howard took office. It seemed vital to me that we avoid subjecting members of our population to unacceptable, inhumane treatment. It goes without saying that treating our community members with the proper protocols would also avoid the litigation costs that inevitably occur as a result of such treatment.
The case of India Cummings clearly underscores why this was worth focusing on, and why Erie County’s current Comptroller should strongly consider following through with this recommendation.
The Commission of Corrections issued its final report on the completed investigation of India Cummings’ death this past week. For those that may not know, India Cummings died in February 2016 while in the custody of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department after being brought to the hospital for a medical emergency. The report concluded that her death should be ruled a homicide as she was found to have died of medical neglect of the injuries that ultimately led to her demise. In other words, India’s death was totally preventable.
I read the report, which can be found in this article. It was clear from the moment that the Lackawanna police got the call that India Cummings was exhibiting signs of serious mental distress. According to the report, she was not appropriately evaluated for mental health problems for the entire 16 days that she was in custody, despite clear signs that something was not right. Instead, she was placed in solitary confinement, had the water shut off to her cell, and was left to sit in squalor as she urinated on herself and ripped up her bedding.
You may be wondering what an audit from the Comptroller’s office could have done. A procedural audit could have uncovered what the Commission of Corrections did with one investigation, namely that Sheriff Howard did not have the proper policies to ensure that India Cummings had the care she needed. Indeed, the Sheriff’s office didn’t have the proper policies in place to assess whether a mentally distressed woman should be placed in solitary confinement—such policies are mandated by New York State Corrections law.
The investigation also uncovered that the County’s medical and mental health staff responsible for those in the holding center failed to do their jobs. Again, this is something that may have been uncovered, had the Comptroller’s office conducted a meaningful audit of the sheriff’s policies. Instead of having a system that is regularly audited to ensure compliance with these important policies, we have a system that has caused the death of twenty-four people, with no indication that there will be a review of whether the Sheriff’s office (or Erie County’s medical staff) will comply with the recommendations set forth in the report.
Stephan asked Erie County to elect him to another term as Erie County Comptroller, and they decided to do so. Therefore, I strongly recommend he use his procedural audit power to ensure that the County is employing the proper protocols necessary for law enforcement to appropriately interact with our mentally ill population, so that we can avoid further costs of the County’s failure to do so.