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suffolk county sheriff

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco was honored for his impact surrounding gang violence and rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala Nov. 9. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

In 2006, a year after he was elected Suffolk County sheriff, Vincent DeMarco took a huge risk. In an effort to reduce gang violence in the Riverhead correctional facility, DeMarco brought a seemingly ill-fated program into the jail where rival gang leaders and members — Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Latin Kings and Aryan Brotherhood — gather in a room to share stories, make peace and help one another escape a life of crime. In doing so, Riverhead became the first county jail in the nation to embrace Council for Unity, a nonprofit founded in Brooklyn in 1975 to keep gang activities out of schools and communities and replace a culture of despair with a culture of hope. The newly-appointed sheriff’s gamble quickly paid off.

Robert DeSena, Vincent DeMarco, Alex Bryan and Butch Langhorn were recognized for their work. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a matter of months, DeMarco and correctional facility members watched the entire jail system turn around, as inmates who came to the prison as enemies began to form friendships through their similar experiences. The men, many of whom are imprisoned for violent behavior and drug dealing, find careers after they’ve served their sentences thanks to job and education opportunities offered in the program.

Inmate population and the rate of recidivism at Riverhead are now at an all-time low and the jail serves as a model for other correctional facilities statewide. The Riverhead Police Department has since developed its own companion anti-gang program with the organization.

“DeMarco has changed the dynamic in that facility and has created hope for inmates who live without hope,” said Robert DeSena, president and founder of Council For Unity, who met with DeMarco and his staff to pitch the radical concept in February 2006. “He has a tremendous social conscience and his perception of incarcerated people is atypical. He saw they had the capacity to be reclaimed and he went with it.”

DeSena and others involved in the program, including ex-gang members, honored DeMarco for his significant impact surrounding these criminals’ rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala at the Garden City Hotel Nov. 9.

“I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts. You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

— Butch Langhorn

The annual event aims to celebrate public figures on Long Island active in the reduction of gang violence in society. DeMarco, who has served as sheriff for 12 years and decided earlier this year he would not seek a fourth term, was on the short list of honorees alongside Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and Council for Unity alumnus Dr. James Li.

He received a plaque referring to him as a visionary, reformer and humanitarian “for creating a climate of hope and possibility for the inmates in his charge.”

While introducing DeMarco to receive his honor, Butch Langhorn, assistant to the sheriff who oversees the Council For Unity sessions at the jail, recalled the first meeting he and DeMarco had with DeSena.

“While we were listening, I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts,’” Langhorn said. “You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

During his 2005 campaign, DeMarco advocated for more programs that aimed to work with inmates and provide opportunities to change their lives. This came in response to a New York State mandate at the time to build a new $300 million correctional facility in Suffolk as the county was pushing 1,800 to 2,000 inmates per day. He was determined to not only lower the population, but make sure the inmates were working toward a goal beyond bars.

“I thought, this is corrections and we’re supposed to correct their behavior,” DeMarco said at the podium. “The facility isn’t about warehousing people and just putting them back into the same situation they came from.”

Although he admitted being skeptical of the idea of intermingling gang members at first, fearing it would only lead to more violence, the sheriff said he left the meeting with DeSena fully on board.

Mario Bulluc, a former MS-13 gang member, went trough the Riverhead jail program and spoke during the gala. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He did this Jedi mind trick on me and I was spun around,” DeMarco said laughing. “I just kept thinking, ‘this could work, this could work.’ It was the right thing to do and we’ve come a long way. A couple people who went through the program are out now and they’re getting paychecks, they’re married. [The program] got them out of gang culture. That warms my heart and makes it all worthwhile for me. I know we’ve helped change people’s lives, so this is a big honor for me. You always seem to remember the first and last thing you did in a position and Bob was the first meeting I ever took and now there’s this. It’s a nice little cap off.”

Mario Bulluc, 22, who was an MS-13 leader when he was a student at Riverhead High School and now serves as an employee of the council, sought refuge in the program after countless close calls with death and time spent in the Riverhead jail. He now devotes his life to helping kids get out of gangs.

“Council For Unity saved my life — DeMarco and DeSena are the greatest men I’ve ever met,” said Bulluc, who joined the infamous gang when he was 14. “They try and get to the root of our problems and help us see we are the same people no matter our race, gang, or gang colors. If I can change, anybody can.”

Alex Bryant, a retired corrections officer at Riverhead and a Council For Unity advisor, said the council was put to the test in the correctional facility and has been proven to be life-changing. He pointed to DeMarco’s leadership as the reason for its success.

“I’ve been under several sheriffs in my 30-year tenure in the field,” Bryant said. “DeMarco is by far the best. He is progressive and eons ahead of most sheriffs across the state of New York.”

Republican Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon are vying for the Suffolk County sheriff position. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Rita J. Egan

Both candidates for Suffolk County sheriff will bring more than two decades of public service experience to the position if elected. The race does not feature an incumbent, as current Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco announced in May he wouldn’t seek re-election after 12 years in the position. On Oct. 13, Republican candidate for sheriff Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon visited the TBR News Media office to discuss their experiences and how they would handle the position if elected.

Zacarese, assistant chief of police and director of the office of emergency management at Stony Brook University since 2009, who is also an attorney, has been a New York City police officer and is currently a volunteer paramedic.

Toulon began serving as a correctional 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.”

— Errol Toulon

Toulon said he feels from day one he would be able to manage the sheriff’s office effectively and will attempt to save taxpayers’ dollars through technology training and equipment.

“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.

Zacarese said he believes his experience would be an asset, especially with a need for capital planning, budgeting and managing grants in today’s tough economic climate, he said.

“My role as an emergency manager at Stony Brook is really broad based,” Zacarese said. “Not only am I involved in the day-to-day operations, planning, mitigation and response and recovery, but I oversee an office that handles all the electronic physical security, design, installation and maintenance for the entire campus, which is over 250 buildings.”

Both cited combating gang activities on Long Island as a priority for the next sheriff.

Toulon said his team at Rikers would gather intelligence from inside the jail as far as calls, visits and social media interactions before incarceration and then would work with law enforcement agencies to gather and disseminate the information. According to him, his team’s work brought down 37 members of the Bloods gang. He said using a database to collect intelligence gathered and sharing it with other agencies is vital in rounding up gang members, and he said he thought his experiences could translate seamlessly to the Suffolk position.

Zacarese is also familiar with combating gang problems. A case he worked on while at a precinct in Jackson Heights involved the investigation of narcotics trafficking by members of the Latin Kings. He said the county lost critical ground in the fight against gangs when the FBI removed two Suffolk County police detectives assigned to the bureau’s joint Long Island Gang Task Force by James Burke, former police department chief, who was found guilty of beating up a suspect and trying to cover it up.

“I have already had conversations and meetings with Homeland Security investigations, with people on the U.S. Marshals’ task force and making sure we have enough people on those task forces,” Zacarese said.

Toulon agreed with Zacarese that in addition to disseminating information, manpower is important.

“Task forces are very important, and keeping our members on these task forces is extremely important,” Toulon said.

“I have already had conversations and meetings with Homeland Security investigations, with people on the U.S. Marshals’ task force and making sure we have enough people on those task forces.”

— Larry Zacarese

The candidates touched on the subject of cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both said while the sheriff’s office doesn’t get involved with immigration issues, it’s important to cooperate with the federal agency. Zacarese said many illegal immigrants are held in jails due to being violent predicate felons and people who return to the country illegally after being deported. The two also agreed it’s important for law enforcement agencies to increase communication with immigrant communities to ensure law abiding citizens do not fear deportation from ICE agents, which makes building cases against gang members more difficult.

Both candidates said they want to work on getting more help for those with substance abuse problems while incarcerated, which may decrease the chances of being arrested again.

“There are people who are leaving the correctional facility without so much as a business card for a social worker or any outreach programs [now],” Zacarese said.

Toulon said while substance abusers are seen by a medical staff to be treated, he agreed when prisoners leave the jail, they need assistance with finding housing and jobs.

“What I propose is creating a resource map so in each particular town we would know where those particular resources are for an individual so when we give them a card or give them the information they would be able to connect and have someone in the sheriff’s they can call and be that conduit,” Toulon said.

Both agreed that combating the drug problem, especially opioid overdoses, needs to be a priority in the county. Better tracking of overdoses; where they are happening, how they’re happening and deaths due to overdoses to identify where people need help, were areas each candidate brought up as meaningful first steps. Zacarese said he believes in enforcing the laws on the books and “strict enforcement for the suppliers, help for the people who are there in the middle and giving them long-term treatment options.”

Toulon pointed out that increasing monitoring of physicians who dispense pain management is also needed and fostering communication with communities “to actually acknowledge the problem that our family and friends are having so that we can get the correct treatment for them.”

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The issue of the newspaper that you now hold in your hands or are reading on an electronic device is an annual superstar. Only once in each year do we publish a comprehensive preelection section that speaks to the upcoming races. We invite the opponents together to our offices for each local race and pepper them with questions until we feel we have a good handle on them. This section is the distillation of many hours of interviews with the candidates and follow-up research, putting together the information that we are privileged to learn. Then we share that information with you.

We go even further. After careful consideration, sometimes over a period of many days, we will come to a conclusion as to whom to vote for and tell you what we think and why. These are our endorsements and may be found on the editorial pages in the back of the paper. We also include a sample ballot so you can walk into your polling place and know the layout on which you will mark your choices.

We are the only community newspapers that span three towns in Suffolk: Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington. So as you can imagine, there are a good number of races in which we need to be involved. In two of these towns, there will be a new day for there are open seats at the top of the ticket for the first time in more than a score of years. In Huntington, longtime Supervisor Frank Petrone decided not to run again, and so Edwards is giving up her seat on the town board, as she and state Assemblyman Lupinacci compete to lead the town. Candidates for the two town board seats are incumbent Cuthbertson and challengers Smyth, Leonick and Rogan. Berland, too, is leaving her seat on the board and trying for a Suffolk County legislative seat, running against Gavilla. Kennedy is challenged by Hyms for her seat in the legislature.

Smithtown Township has the same open top position since Vecchio lost the Republican primary and will not be running for supervisor for the first time in 40 years. Instead the residents will have Holst, Wehrheim or Slevin as their new leader. The voters will also choose two board members among Fortunato, Doyle, McCarthy, Nowick, Lohmann and Stoddard.

Brookhaven, in contrast, has no open seats but plenty of competition. Incumbent Romaine is facing a challenge from Harrington for supervisor. In our coverage district, incumbent Councilwoman Cartright is running against challenger Canale, and incumbent Bonner is being opposed by Goodman. For the county Legislature in our Brookhaven area, we have incumbent Anker versus Pollakusky and incumbent Hahn challenged by Flood. Also in play is the Brookhaven Town superintendent of highways position, as incumbent Dan Losquadro is challenged by Portesy.

Two of the most closely watched contests in Suffolk County are for district attorney and sheriff. Both of those positions are open seats. Police Commissioner Sini is running against Perini for DA and Stony Brook University Deputy Police Chief Zacarese is opposed by Toulon in the race for sheriff.

On top of our usual duties at TBR News Media, we interviewed them all. It was exhausting but exhilarating, as we learned more than we already knew from the incumbents and a great deal about the challengers. We heard about the issues that are on the minds of the North Shore community. The electorate is concerned about the escalating opioid epidemic that is killing hundreds, particularly of our younger people. Residents also continue to be frustrated about high property taxes, public safety — especially as it relates to the insidious growth of gangs, the traffic in Smithtown, the homeless in Brookhaven and the brain drain that is the result of not enough high-paying jobs and affordable housing.

We also tell you our opinion of a constitutional convention. We oppose it, fearing a Pandora’s box containing many evils.

We are always impressed that residents will come forward to run for public office. Campaigns are a lot of work, and being a public servant has its tribulations. This year, more than most others, we are further impressed by the high quality of candidates. We urge you to do one of the two things you are allowed only if you are an American citizen. Please be sure to VOTE.

P.S. The other is to serve on a jury.

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