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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.”

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Each night, throughout this long stretch of intense heat and high humidity, we have been praying to the air-conditioning gods to stay strong and continue to keep us comfortable. Last Friday night I must have forgotten, in my euphoria at the start of the weekend, to say my prayers because Saturday afternoon there was a waterfall coming through the ceiling in one of our offices.

Fortunately a staff member had come in to prepare for the next editions and was horrified at the sight. The water was dripping through the Sheetrock and onto one of our newer computers, then splashing its way off the papers on the desk and the leather surface of the chair to land on the relatively new carpet. A unit in the attic had given up trying to wring moisture out of the room and had broken down, releasing its condensate. The ceiling had begun to sag in protest.

The staff member called me.

I was at home, sitting in my favorite living room chair, reading the sections of the Sunday Times that we somehow get delivered on Saturday morning. The dog lay beside me, snoring slightly, enjoying the peaceful companionship of a weekend afternoon. I could hear the birds chirping outside, even over the whoosh of the air conditioning. It was a bucolic high-summer scene — until the phone rang.

Then we went into a frenzy that has lasted until today, as the repairmen try to pinpoint the problem. One thing I can tell you. It sure is tough to be creative in the 90-degree-plus heat. But the staff has soldiered on, despite the sultry air. Yes, we have fans and, yes, we have air conditioning in the rest of the building, some of which in theory should waft into the stricken room. But it has been uncomfortable, and the staff has persevered. If your newspaper feels a little damp, I trust you’ll understand. And we are hoping the fix is in.

How did we manage before air conditioning? There are still people who do not have air conditioning today by choice. Apartments and stores weren’t air conditioned when I was in the first decade of my life — only movie theaters were, and that’s where we hung out for two features and a news short on Saturday afternoons. When we wanted to cool down on Sundays, we rode the subway out to Rockaway Beach in Brooklyn — the end of the line — then walked the blocks to the sand and the surf, marveling at the seaside breeze. We stayed there — my parents, my brother, my sister and I — until quite late before returning to our stuffy apartment, squeezing as much time as we could from our comfortable location. Sometimes it even got quite cool along the water’s edge at night. We never complained.

During the week, we took refuge in Central Park, sitting on a bench or a blanket that we might have carried through the streets. We would pass neighbors hanging over their ground-floor windowsills and youngsters lounging on the steps of their stoops. Once we reached the park, my dad would find a thicket of trees and spread the blanket for us. Stretched out, we deeply inhaled the sweet summer evening breezes that might come along. After my brother, who was almost 14 years older, purchased his car, he would take us for rides after work with the side windows rolled down and the wing windows directing the flow of air onto our faces. Once we cleared the downtown streets and reached the parkway, he could get up enough speed to make us rejoice in the stream of air.

Even when I was in my 20s and married, we didn’t have air conditioning in our car, although it was available as an expensive option. It wasn’t until we lived on the Texas air base and bought a station wagon from a local dealer for our growing family that we got air conditioning. It turned out that was standard in every car in the South. How perfectly wonderful, but we did take a bit of ribbing from our friends and family about being spendthrifts when we drove back north. That was in the late 1960s, in a world long gone.