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Shootings

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. speaks during an interviw at TBR News Media in Setauket July 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Seven months into Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.’s (D-Lake Grove) term, several issues have become top priorities. He sat for an exclusive interview at the TBR News Media office with the editorial staff July 20 to detail the road ahead.

Staffing issues within Sheriff’s office

The sheriff’s office is short-staffed specifically due to officers retiring or leaving for higher paying jobs elsewhere, according to Toulon.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day,” he said. “We just lost two — one going to [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] police and one going to the New York City Police Academy. I’m expecting to lose two in the near future; more going to other law enforcement [jobs].”

The department is short on 76 mandated posts that the two county corrections facilities are supposed to have. This has led to an increase in overtime for existing corrections personnel. Toulon said he sees the low starting salary for Suffolk County corrections officers as the primary driver of the staff shortage. Those in the positions are paid $30,000 per year initially, reaching about $76,000 after 12 years. Starting salaries in Nassau County or New York City corrections are about $10,000 more.

“The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

Toulon said 30 people will be graduating from the county academy Aug. 8 to fill some of the vacancies.

A pay raise would have to be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, though Toulon said he supports it.

School Security

As the occurrences of school shootings seemingly increase nationally, especially after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, security has become a hot topic amongst school districts and communities. The sheriff’s office is working on the issue as well. Toulon said getting everybody on the same page when it comes to securing schools is a tough but essential job, which requires coordination between school security, police departments and the sheriff’s office.

“When you are going into these schools you frequently realize some of these schools have armed security, some have unarmed security, and some have security that are armed because they hired retired law enforcement, and it’s not publicized,” Toulon said.

School security officers obviously do not have standards as far as uniforms across county school districts. Further confusing local law enforcement, each school might have different protocols in engaging an active shooter, whether they will actively engage the shooter with a firearm or focus on getting the children to safety.

Toulon said he and his officers have gone into schools at the request of the districts to perform security assessments. So far 10 out of 69 school districts in Suffolk County have taken the Sheriff’s department up on the offer.

Toulon said an ideal setup might be having standardized training for all school districts and school security officers in the county not only so they would know what to do in a school fire, bomb or shooting scenario, but also because it would train them to interact with any local police that arrive on the scene.

The sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk County school superintendents August 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas.

Dealing with gangs and immigration officials

Toulon said that while county jails only hold people charged with local crimes, they do work with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency when it comes to some inmates.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“The sheriff’s office doesn’t profile people,” Toulon said. “If you blow a stop sign or a red light, we are going to pull you over. The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

Toulon stressed that the sheriff’s department does not participate on any ICE raids. He advised the immigrant community to know their Miranda Rights, that they do not have to communicate to police without a lawyer, and that anyone concerned about an arrest could contact the sheriff’s office.

Many people in local communities are concerned about activities perpetrated by the local incarnations of the MS-13 gang. Several high-profile gang murders were prosecuted in the past few years, including the 2017 murder of two young girls in Brentwood, complicating community-law enforcement relations and heating up a polarized, politically-based national discourse. Stories of abuses of power carried out by the federal agency, mostly in areas nearer to the southern border, have not been representative of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office’s dealings with ICE, Toulon said, adding that he would not tolerate inappropriate behavior from any uniformed officer within the facilities he oversees, be them staff under his purview or otherwise.

Toulon said comments made by President Donald Trump (R) on the matter have made his job tougher, especially when dealing with local immigrant communities.

“The tensions that I see in the immigrant community come from what they see going on in the rest of the country,” Toulon said. “The fact that our current president tweets about it and makes comments about a whole population – that is not fair, it makes my job a lot more difficult.”

Cops say arrests are up and recent violence gang-related

Christina Fudenski, a Greenlawn resident, speaks with police officer Angela Ferrara at South Huntington Public Library on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Residents of Huntington are calling for an increase in staffing at the Suffolk County Police Department’s 2nd Precinct in the wake of three separate shootings that occurred in less than a month.

Deputy Inspector William Read assured community members gathered at South Huntington Public Library on Wednesday, Aug. 13, that the police force is completely competent in its current size, but residents were not convinced.

“We want to ask for outside help,” Jim McGoldrick, a Huntington Station resident said. “We can’t go on this way, our kids are being shot at.”

Luis Hernandez, 21, Aaron Jolly, 18, and Nelson Hernandez, 22, all survived shootings in the Huntington Station and Greenlawn area in late July and August. Luis Hernandez and Jolly both suffered from gunshot wounds to their legs, and Nelson Hernandez was shot in the back.

“What we’re doing is working, our program is effective, and crime stats are down dramatically,” Read said. “We are having success, but it can’t be 100 percent.”

The police associate many of the recent problems in the area with gangs, and Read said that gang cops have been out undercover investigating these cases constantly. He said there are a number of social programs combatting gang issues as well.

But the crowd argued that not enough is being done, and that more problems are arising.

Lisa MacKenzie, a Huntington resident, asked what the police are doing about the ongoing problem of intoxicated individuals passing out in the streets in Huntington Station.

“Why are these individuals taken to the hospital and not arrested?”

Officer Angela Ferrara explained that it is always the duty of the police and the standard procedure to treat someone medically first. She also noted that this has become a concern in many different areas in Huntington.

“What if I am on Depot Road in the future and hit [someone] who is intoxicated and attempting to cross the street, who will actually get in trouble then?” MacKenzie said. “We need drunk crossing signs, instead of deer crossing signs.”

Residents also complained about the how 911 dispatchers handle calls. Several said in the past, dispatchers have told them to either leave their car or house to get closer to a scene.

“They had the nerve to tell me to flag down one of the patrol cars when I called, and to get out of my car…this is putting the public at risk,” Nicholas Wieland, of The Huntingtonian news website, said. “You guys have some homework to do with the 911 service.”

Robert Finnerty, a Huntington Station resident, brought his son to the meeting, and said he is now afraid to go outside.

“We have people in the street across from us saying ‘I will shoot you in the street, I will kill you,’ and it’s scaring my son,” Finnerty said. He said the residents yelling this are people living in single dwelling homes occupied by five different families.

“We have to go after the overcrowded houses,” McGoldrick said. “It’s not fair to the police officers and fire firefighters. One of the biggest problems is how housing is handled in this town.”

As members of the audience agreed housing is a town issue, not a police one, the tone changed toward a desire to see a change in leadership in Huntington Town. Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) and Councilman Gene Cook (R) were both present at the meeting, as well as Huntington Town Board candidate Jennifer Thompson, a member of the Northport-East Northport school board.

Despite the criticism throughout the night, the 2nd Precinct deputy inspector defended the department’s work.

“We’re covering all our sectors, we’ve been doing it for years,” he said.

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