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Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon speaks during a media event Feb. 9 at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Photo by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon (D-Lake Grove) has only been in office for six weeks but he’s wasting no time working on the issues he campaigned on and bringing change to his new environment.

“Every single day since I’ve started, I wake up very enthused and energetic to get to work,” Toulon said during a media roundtable discussion he hosted Feb. 9 at Yaphank Correctional Facility. “I want to break down the barrier between law enforcement and our community — I want residents to know who their sheriff is.”

Since Jan. 1, Toulon, a former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain, has visited five school districts across the county, from Huntington to Bay Shore, to speak with students about bullying, vaping, opioid use and gangs as part of a long-term initiative to, in his own words, “get to the kids before they get to me.” A more thorough “listening tour” will be held across local high schools during which Toulon will meet with specific students who face drug- and gang-related problems.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do.’”

— Steve Kuehhas

“I am going to be very tough on crime,” he said. “I will, as I did in New York City, go after gang members and those distributing drugs illegally and I encourage the community’s support.”

He said he is in the process of creating an intelligence-gathering system within the correctional facility similar to one established in the gang unit at Rikers Island to help outside law enforcement partners, including District Attorney Tim Sini (D), track down criminals and better prevent and solve crimes. As part of the system, information will be  gathered from inmates through interviews, phone calls, visits and social media interactions that occurred before incarceration, with a focus on targeting particular crimes in certain towns and jurisdictions.

He said he will also be implementing a re-entry program for inmates leaving the jail focused on rehabilitation and counseling.

“We’re all in this together and that individual that’s in his cell today may be in Target tomorrow buying something,” he said. “So I want to make sure we treat everyone with fairness and respect, and assist them in keeping their dignity. I feel confident that, after four years, we are going to make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives by deterring individuals from joining gangs, reducing this epidemic involving prescription drugs and [reduce] the high rate of recidivism.”

Toulon said he is adamant about taking politics out of the sheriff’s office, insisting he will not be accepting any political contributions and that all employees will be evaluated solely on attendance and work performance.

He has already met with various members of his staff, and inmates in the housing area, to address any issues they may have faced in the past. In light of the nationwide #MeToo movement, he said he will be meeting with female deputy sheriff’s, correctional officers and non-uniform staff members to create a more open environment when it comes to addressing issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Inside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. File photo by Kevin Redding

While he admits to having a different management style than his predecessor, former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C), Toulon said he is pleased so far by the way Suffolk’s two jails operate and will be holding onto many of DeMarco’s implementations.

This includes a controversial policy change in December 2016 to detain undocumented immigrants who have been arrested in Suffolk County, and are eligible to be released pending a trial, at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents so they can begin the deportation process. Before DeMarco implemented the change, the county needed a judge’s order, or warrant, to hold onto someone wanted by federal immigration officials.

At the time, DeMarco expressed concerns about the impact on public safety that could come from releasing immigrants who committed crimes back into their communities.

“ICE will stay in this jail,” Toulon said. “It’s a hot button topic, but my number one job is to keep the community safe. Looking at local charges of all undocumented inmates, these are really horrific crimes — if done by anybody. We’re talking about sexual assault, robberies, burglaries.”

Current Undersheriff Steve Kuehhas, a former bureau chief for the district attorney’s office who became second in command to DeMarco in 2016, is the only past employee of the office who will be interviewed for undersheriff in the new administration as Toulon seeks “an infusion of new and objective ideas.”

Kuehhas said he’s beyond impressed with the job Toulon has done so far.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do,’” he said. “I know because I’m at his side all the time and the work is constant, which I love. It’s always busy. And this is just the beginning. He’s very honest when he says he wants to be transparent and always available to the public.”

The race between Republican Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon appears to be over. Photo on left by Alex Petroski; photo on right by Rita J. Egan

The wait is over.

Nearly a month after Election Day, Suffolk County residents finally know who will replace outgoing Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C) in 2018. Former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain Errol Toulon Jr. (D) emerged ahead of Stony Brook University Assistant Chief of Police Larry Zacarese (R) by a slim margin Nov. 7 in the race to be the next county sheriff, and after thousands of absentee ballots have been counted, Toulon’s lead has held up.

“I am proud of the campaign we ran and the hard work of our volunteers,” Toulon said in a statement. “I look forward to combating gang violence and the opioid epidemic in Suffolk, and to introduce a strong re-entry program for those leaving county jails.”

The victory makes Toulon the first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position in Suffolk’s history, according to campaign manager Keith Davies.

“I think his experience just resonated with folks,” Davies said. “People wanted a sheriff that is ready to tackle the issues.”

In an emailed statement through a campaign spokesperson, Zacarese said he was disappointed and announced, “We did not make up the ground we needed in order to prevail.” A spokesperson from the Suffolk County Board of Elections confirmed Toulon had won the race, though a final tally was not immediately available at the time of print. The spokesperson said Toulon held a 2,000-vote lead as of Dec. 1 with about 1,000 ballots left to be counted.

“I want to thank all of the supporters and volunteers who spent countless hours working alongside me both on the campaign trail over the last year and at the Board of Elections over these last few weeks,” Zacarese said. “I am proud of the campaign we ran, the honest and tireless work of our volunteers and the light that was shown on the electoral process here in Suffolk County. I wish the hardworking and dedicated men and women of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office only the best and congratulate Errol Toulon Jr. on winning the election.”

Zacarese trailed Toulon by just 1,354 votes prior to the counting of absentee ballots, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections. The absentee ballots were counted by a bipartisan team of department employees in addition to representatives from both campaigns at the Board of Elections office in Yaphank over a few weeks. Nick LaLota, the department’s commissioner, said on election night at about 8:30 p.m. on Twitter the department had received more than 13,500 absentee ballots to that point, though more were expected.

Toulon began serving as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in 1982 and retired as a captain in 2004. For two years he was assistant deputy county executive for public safety in Suffolk, and in 2014 he was named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot on various levels inside of a correctional agency, and while that’s not the entire makeup of the sheriff’s department, it is a good portion of it,” Toulon said during a pre-election interview.

Toulon’s victory completes a sweep for the Democrats in the two high-profile Suffolk County races in 2017. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini (D) defeated Ray Perini (R) with 62.08 percent of the vote in the Nov. 7 general election to secure the county’s district attorney seat, a position left vacant following the indictment and resignation of Tom Spota (D).

DeMarco announced in May he wouldn’t seek re-election after 12 years in the position.

This post was updated to include quotes from Toulon Dec. 7.

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