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Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office

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.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., second from right, joined by his wife Tina, right, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during his inauguration Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just days before the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous dream, Errol Toulon (D) made history by taking the oath as Suffolk County Sheriff, making him Long Island’s first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo administers the oath of office to Errol Toulon Jr., Suffolk County’s new sheriff, during his inauguration ceremony Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Toulon, 55, was officially sworn in by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 12 during an inauguration ceremony held at Van Nostrand Theater on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College in the company of his wife, Tina Toulon, family members, friends and town and county elected officials, including County Executive Steve Bellone (D), recently sworn-in District Attorney Tim Sini (D), Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C). A former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain who emerged victorious against Republican candidate Larry Zacarese after just two months of campaigning, Toulon entered the race determined to utilize his more than 35 years in corrections and law enforcement to tackle gangs and the opioid crisis, while creating a stronger environment within the county’s jails.

“I have to say, this is a long way from my days being a batboy with the New York Yankees,” Toulon laughed, referring to his two-year stint in the 1970s serving on the team. “For me, this race was a whirlwind, but this job is one I’ve been preparing for my entire life.”

After serving at Rikers Island from 1982 to 2004, Toulon, starting in 2012, worked for two years in Bellone’s administration as assistant deputy county executive for public safety and in 2014 was named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections. In the midst of his career, he has also beaten cancer twice — in 1996 and 2004.

“He is a man who has confronted great challenges in his life,” Bellone said. “I have personally seen him face these difficulties with incredible grace and dignity and fortitude. He has confronted all these challenges and has perseverance, which is exactly what you want to have in a leader. I am proud to be here today to support a friend, a colleague and a leader.”

During the ceremony, Cuomo called attention to the historical significance of Toulon’s victory.

“It says something about the people of Suffolk County, says something about the progress of society, says something about acceptance and it says that we’re one step closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of one day judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” Cuomo said. “This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position … I am selfishly overjoyed by Sheriff Toulon’s election because in government, job number one is public safety.”

“This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position.”

— Andrew Cuomo

Toulon assured the cheering audience he is committed to making the county a better and safer place for all, with plans in place to continue and create initiatives in the sheriff’s office to combat gang and substance abuse-related problems, as well as rehabilitation services and re-entry programs for those incarcerated. He also said the office, under his leadership, will routinely participate in community events, civic association meetings and will do everything in its power to prevent young people from going down the wrong path.

“I am ready to work and I am ready to lead,” Toulon said. “We have to ensure that we deliver as a society and assist those who need help and keep those who do harm off our streets. These gangs might think they’re tough, these gang members might think they have all the answers and can outsmart us, but they’re going to have a lot of time to think about their decisions when they’re sitting behind bars because they were no match for the men and women in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.”