By Aidan Johnson
The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and the Town of Brookhaven once again held their National Night Out event at the Fireman’s Memorial Park in Ridge.
National Night Out, an annual tradition that takes place on the first Tuesday in August, is a nationwide event that police officers participate in to raise awareness about police programs in their communities.
The Brookhaven National Night Out, the largest of its kind on the East End, opened by playing the national anthem. As hundreds of families arrived, multiple activities were being held, including tug of war, bingo and an ice cream truck that gave away free vanilla and chocolate swirls.
“People always know what the police department does, but sometimes people don’t know what the Sheriff’s Office does, so we have our trucks here,” said Sgt. Paul Spinella of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office. “We have our deputies here showing all the different aspects that the Sheriff’s Office is involved in, and hopefully meeting some community members.”
Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. was also on hand during the event. He spoke of the progress that his office has made in bolstering community turnout and educating the public about services offered through his office.
“The way that our National Night Out has grown from almost 250 people at the first one four years ago to now expecting over 3000 people today shows that not only are we having a positive impact on our community, but our community wants to learn more about us,” Toulon said.
The sheriff also highlighted the steps that he and his office have undertaken to build trust with the broader public.
“I think there’s pretty much a symbiotic relationship between the community and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office,” he said, adding, “I think that members of the community in Suffolk County are extremely supportive of the law enforcement community, which we are very appreciative of. We want to keep our communities safe so that each and every person can live and do the things that they freely want to do.”
One of Toulon’s goals is to establish a closer relationship between children and the police. According to him, law enforcement can offer the necessary guidance to keep children away from bad influences and motivate them to contribute to their community.
“Our goal is to really make sure that we can keep young kids on the straight and narrow path so that we can show them the positive thing to do,” he said. “Since I’ve become the sheriff, I’ve been in one to two schools per week talking to students about bullying, vaping, opioids and drugs.”
Toulon added that one of his achievements as sheriff has been bringing programs from the Sandy Hook Promise organization to all Suffolk County schools. The organization, which was started by Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, who lost their children in the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, aims to empower kids and adults to prevent violence in schools and their communities.
“We have taught over 30,000 faculty, teachers and students with the programs — the Start with Hello and the Say Something programs,” Toulon said. “We also engage with our middle school students with the gang resistance education and training program. We try to deter kids from engaging in any type of gang activity. We really try to really make sure that our kids are making good choices.”
While many deputies were present during the night, becoming one is no easy task. One deputy shared some of the requirements, including tests, physicals and orientations.
“It’s actually a very long process to become a deputy,” she said. “Honestly, I think it takes about a year.”
Among all of the booths set up was one for the organization New Hour, a nonprofit founded to support women who are either currently or formerly incarcerated and their families.
“We try to provide donations that include clothing, shoes, cosmetics, toiletries and any donation that we think a woman could benefit from once they’re released or once they have finished their term,” Anitria Blue, the community ambassador liaison for New Hour, said.
One of New Hour’s major programs is referred to as Empowering Methods for Effective Reentry, Growth and Engagement, or EMERGE. It is a 15-week program that allows women to meet and learn about resources that may help them. The program helps these women become more involved with the criminal and social justice systems and helps them learn to advocate for others.
While Blue felt slightly intimidated by the turnout of her former corrections officers during the event, she enjoyed the event nonetheless.
“I had good relationships with my officers during my 17 years of incarceration,” she said. “It took a while, but they got to know me, so when I see them, I actually see humanity.”
Toulon felt a strong sense of appreciation for everyone who worked for him. “When I look at the [people] who work for me, whether they are deputy sheriffs, correctional officers or civilians, I think that they are heroes because not too many people can do what they do,” the sheriff said.
As the night went on, a feeling of community connectedness grew among everyone in attendance. “I think we want [people] to know that we’re just like them,” Spinella said. “We’re community members, too. We help the community, just like garbage men and post office [workers]. When they come up to us and ask us for help, we are there for them.”