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Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.

Sheriff Toulon and his staff distribute turkey dinners in 2022.
100 of these turkey dinners will also be available to local families in need on a first come, first serve basis.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, Jr., will distribute holiday meals for those in need at the 6th Annual Suffolk Sheriff’s Office Thanksgiving Food Distribution at the START Resource Center, 200 Glover Avenue, Yaphank on November 21 beginning at 10 a.m.

Over 400 turkeys, along with trimmings (gravy, stuffing, sides), will be given out at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office START Center to pre-selected residents at a drive-thru event. 100 of these turkey dinners will also be available to local families in need on a first come, first serve basis. With the cost of groceries and household expenses rising the past two years, more and more Long Island families are turning to food banks. To combat the demand, families in need of holiday meal help were identified by the START Center and their partner non-profit service agencies to guarantee that they can receive a free Thanksgiving meal without worry of a shortage.

The items were collected via Amazon Wishlist, donation bins throughout the Sheriff’s Office’s facilities, and through donations from partners including:

Caitlyn’s Vision
Deputy Sheriff’s Police Benevolent Association (DSPBA)
Suffolk County Corrections Officer Association (SCCOA)
Suffolk County Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association (COBA)
Chubs Meat Market
United Way of Long Island
Long Island Cares
St. John’s Nepomucene Church
Bravo Supermarket
Compare Foods
City on the Hill Community Church
Salvation Army

For more information, please call 631-852-3405.

METRO photo

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon, Jr. and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office will be hosting a back-to-school giveaway on Tuesday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.

The free community event will take place at the S.T.A.R.T. Resource Center located at 200 Glover Drive in Yaphank. Students in attendance will receive a backpack filled with various school supplies as well as a pair of pajamas courtesy of EJ’s PJ’s. School supplies and backpacks were donated by Walmart.

 The event is first come, first serve, and will run from 2pm until supplies last.  Students must be present to receive a backpack. For more information please contact Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office’s Public Information Officer Vicki DiStefano at [email protected]

Pictured from left, Town of Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro; Councilwoman Jane Bonner; Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon, Jr. and Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney. Photo from TOB

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department recently hosted the annual National Night Out at Fireman’s Park in Ridge. This annual nationwide initiative is designed to enhance community relationships between local law enforcement and the residents they serve. National Night Out is held annually in a relaxed and friendly setting, fostering mutual trust and understanding, solidifying its place as a community highlight of the year.

Pictured at right are, from left, Brookhaven Town Traffic Safety Employee Tom Indence; Councilwoman Jane Bonner; Brookhaven Town Traffic Engineer Jon Sullivan, with participants at the Town’s Safety Town demonstration.

National Night Out in Ridge featured an impressive array of activities and exhibits, including informational booths, entertainment, and interactive displays aimed at educating attendees about various aspects of safety and community involvement. Councilwoman Jane Bonner, well-known for her community engagement, expressed her delight in partnering with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department for the event.

“I am thrilled to have worked alongside the dedicated officers of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Toulon to bring our community together for National Night Out. This event is a wonderful opportunity for residents to connect with law enforcement, learn about safety measures, and strengthen the bonds that make our community so special,” said Councilwoman Bonner.

“The Sheriff’s Office is proud to partner with Supervisor Romaine, Councilwoman Bonner and the Town of Brookhaven to throw one of the largest National Night Out events in Suffolk County. Each year thousands of residents come out to enjoy the festivities. Thank you to all the members of the Sheriff’s Office as well as our government and non-profit partners for helping make this the best event yet!” said Sheriff Toulon.

Student Ambassador Melody Luo and Sheriff Errol Toulon. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff's office
Named Sandy Hook Promise “Ambassador for the Day”

On May 6, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. hosted 11th grade Commack High School Student Melody Luo as his “Ambassador for the Day” Sandy Hook Promise Essay Contest Winner. This annual essay contest was held as part of the Sheriff’s Office’s collaboration with the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. Melody wrote a heartfelt essay about her Asian heritage, the rise in violence against the Asian community, and a culture of silence that she attributes to why hate crimes, bullying and harassment are underreported in the Asian community. Her essay is attached below.

Student Ambassador Melody Luo and Sheriff Errol Toulon. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff’s office

Melody read her winning essay during a celebratory breakfast at the Yaphank Facility with Sheriff Toulon and staff members. Afterwards, Melody received greetings from the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, received a certificate, and engaged in discussion with officers about Sandy Hook Promise’s initiatives and anti-Asian violence. She and her mother, Lynn, also took a tour of the jail and the START Resource Center.

The winning contest essays were announced by Sheriff Toulon in March and Melody took first place out of 91 submissions from seven school districts.

Sheriff Toulon also sat down with Melody to interview her for “A New Perspective,” a new show produced by the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office for YouTube and government access television stations. They discussed bullying and anti-Asian violence and how it affects students of all ages.

Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff’s office

“Melody is an asset to the Commack School District and the Suffolk County Community. She is a bright, insightful young woman and I was proud to name her “Ambassador for the Day,” said Sheriff Toulon. “We can learn a lot by speaking with our younger generations, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to speak with her today.”

For more information on the collaboration between the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, please visit www.SuffolkSheriff.com and click on “Community and School Programs.”

The following is the text of Melody Luo’s winning essay:

Weary of being cooped up inside, an 84-year-old Thai man was eager to leave his house and go on his regular morning walk. He stepped out into the chilly San Francisco weather around 8:28 AM on January 28, 2021, for what would unknowingly be his last time. An hour later, he was slammed into the ground by a man–to whom he had no relation–that barreled into him at full speed. The 84-year-old, at a height of 5 feet and 6 inches and a weight of 113 pounds, died from a brain hemorrhage in the hospital two days later. His name was Vicha Ratanapakdee.

On the opposite coast, in the previous year, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was slapped in the face and set on fire in Brooklyn, New York by two assaulters to whom she—once again–had never met prior to the encounter. The woman, who rightfully chose to remain unidentified to the public eye, was reluctant to report the attack to the police, seeing that she could only speak in Cantonese. It wasn’t until her family urged her to come forward that she chose to do so.

In the eyes of these elderly people, I see my own grandparents, who are well over the age of 70. We spend our Saturdays eating extravagant dinners and singing karaoke, (rather badly, if I may add). As the evening draws to a close, we say our goodbyes and await the next week in anticipation. There’s never a doubt in my mind that we will meet the following week, but then again, there was never a doubt in the minds of the victims’ families either. In every single news article I read and in every single attack I discuss with my friends in casual conversation, my mind inches towards the inevitable: is it a question of if a loved one gets attacked, or when?

These events are only a select few examples of the recent surge in hate crimes against the Asian-American community. Over the course of the past year, such attacks against us have increased by 1900%, and yet, they are rarely ever broadcasted on mainstream media nor talked about by people in prominent positions of power. Silence. Worse than silence, perhaps, is the unrelenting stigma perpetuated by a number of such aforementioned figures, the most influential of which being politicians.

“Chinese Virus.”



All names coined to shift blame for a disease onto an entire ethnicity of people that suffered from COVID-19 in the same ways the rest of the world did; all names that I have heard first-hand thrown at any person with a semblance of East Asian descent within the United States.

For the most part, we remained silent.

I think back to what my culture teaches us when facing the world. From a young age, I learned to never speak back to elders, this being inclusive of my parents, my family members, my teachers, and more. In turn, I’ve seen this manifest into a culture of people that try their best to avoid confrontation. We, as Asian-Americans, are stereotypically acknowledged to be submissive in a world dominated by opinionated leaders. This is especially prominent in our government, as our representation is next to non-existent. Out of 435 congressional representatives, only thirteen are members of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community.

On top of that, all thirteen represent a range of only five states: California, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Washington. That being said, this representation is a start. On September 17, 2020, House Resolution 908, proposed by Congresswoman Grace Meng of the sixth congressional district of New York, was passed by a vote of 243 to 164. This resolution called for public officials to “condemn and denounce anti-Asian sentiment, racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance related to COVID-19…and [for] federal officials to expeditiously investigate and document all credible reports of hate crimes and incidents and threats against the Asian-American community”. In this instance, action and advocacy have proved to the world that we will not stand by and endure its prejudice.

There comes a point where our silence holds the same level of evil as the perpetrator. We cannot be bystanders to the inequity thrown upon our friends of color and we cannot be bystanders to the attacks thrown upon ourselves. I’d like to take this time to remind all people of color that we are not in competition with one another, but rather the overarching racism instilled in the thick roots of our world. To pluck these roots we must not simply hear the words spoken by our counterparts, but genuinely listen. We must not single out the wilting plants from each other’s’ communities and generalize the entire neighborhood based on that, but rather water each other’s plants with the gifts of knowledge and empathy. From there, and only from there, may we adequately speak through the sound of silence.

In my own life, I do my best to combat prejudice by using my voice. I joined my school’s political activists club, partook in conversations with various members of the House of Representatives, and frequently debate everyday events with peers. More often than not, I hear that the youth of the country should not be criticizing the government nor engaging in political disputes. I heavily disagree, as in order to bring forward aspects of understanding, we need to communicate with and stand up for one another.

Silence has become a deadly weapon yielded in the hands of the privileged and I refuse to be complicit.

Major Martin Viera, back row third from left, along with other members of the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing. During 9/11 he was an eighth grade science teacher in New Jersey, and the terrorist attacks pushed him even further to join the service. Photo courtesy of 106th Air Rescue Wing

By Rich Acritelli

Nineteen years ago, this Sept. 11, the U.S. was attacked in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and over the farm fields of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Long had it been since our people endured such a threat to the national security of America. In a matter of moments, a horrified generation of citizens watched a dangerous threat oppose this country. But, almost immediately, there came an unyielding spirit of patriotism that matched every serious historic event that gripped our people.

‘If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.’ 

—Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl

The above quote was from the wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl, who lost his life due to this terrorism in what was known as the “plane that fought back.”  Regardless of race, ethnic group, religion or economic class standing, years ago during and after this assault on our soil, all people in this country helped each other during this time of sorrow. People sent goodwill packages to the rescue workers, firemen, and police officers that spent endless days searching for survivors and the remains of citizens from the World Trade Center. Yellow ribbons were wrapped around trees and porches, patriotic bumper stickers were on our cars and trucks and Walmart was unable to keep up with the massive requests to purchase American flags. Through this national hardship originated an immediate willingness to help others, to serve at home and abroad. People looked at the flag with an intense sense of pride.

But in our current times, the political, economic, social, racial and ethnic tensions have divided this outstanding country. Today, on both sides of the political aisle, there is a noticeable resentment that threatens to weaken the foundations of a country that was always an example towards others. Regardless of our citizens’ differences, our people could always count on supporting each other through the darkest of times. To friend and foe alike, American has been a true source of strength and determination since 9/11. For in this country it was not that long ago that people lined the streets to wave to rescue workers and give them a needed boost as they headed towards Ground Zero. There were the sad periods when people, especially those from the North Shore, attended funeral services for those local graduates and citizens that were killed from these attacks. This also marked the point where there has been continued fighting and presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, where our residents served with distinction to protect the freedoms of this nation against terrorism and its supporters. 

Members of the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 stand proud. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Local residents widely recalled important memories of when America was united some twenty years ago. Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore fondly recalled the unity that was demonstrated on the North Shore. Weeks after the attacks, there was an outside assembly program at the Rocky Point High School football field. The American flag that was flown at Ground Zero was presented by parachuters jumped over a packed crowd. Years after this event, Cognitore still gets chills from this program that brought these people together to cherish a flag which survived the earliest moments of the War on Terror.  

Miller Place resident Anthony Flammia is a retired 24-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. As a motorcycle patrolman, Flammia spent over 300 hours at Ground Zero where he assisted in the rescue and the recovery efforts. He has tirelessly championed local, state and federal legislation to aid the thousands of rescue workers and citizens that have been severely inflicted or died from the 9/11/01 related illnesses. As a devoted member of the FEAL Good Foundation, Flammia’s mission has been to help many people from this period that saw all people, from all different backgrounds come together. Flammia recalled the devotion that his fellow officers showed to each other at this time and he stated, “It did not matter if your skin color was white, black, orange or purple. We all helped each other, and we bled blue.”

Marty Viera was a 1988 graduate of Rocky Point High School and a former lifeguard at Smith’s Point that currently serves at the New York 106th Air National Guard base at Westhampton. As a combat rescue officer, Viera has spent numerous days away from home in deployments at home and abroad. During 9/11, Viera was an eighth grade science teacher in New Jersey who was in the process of joining the military. Once the nation was hit by terrorism, Viera felt helpless that he was unable to help our people and he quickly pursued a career in the service. Always an upbeat military officer, Viera is proud of his training and combat experiences with his fellow service members who are devoted to live by the creed of this Rescue Wing, “These things we do, that others may live.”

John Fernandez was a talented student athlete that graduated from Rocky Point High School in 1996. “Spanish Lightning” went to the West Point Prep School for one year and moved onto graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York in 2001. As a young second lieutenant, he was completing training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when terrorism hit this nation on 9/11. For Fernandez, this was an extremely personal matter for this local officer, as he recalled watching the destruction of the Twin Towers, he immediately ascertained that our country was at war against Al-Qaeda. 

By 2003, Fernandez entered Iraq with some of the first American forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This Shoreham resident is an upbeat father of six children that was severely wounded overseas and has the constant reminders of Second Gulf War. For many years, Fernandez worked for the Wounded Warriors where he had seen incredible acts of comradery between the city rescue workers and veterans. Years after 9/11, Fernandez observed these groups bond together through a special source of unity that was based in service. Fernandez explained that this “shared sacrifice” brought these proud Americans together that fought both on foreign battlefields and amongst the debris of Ground Zero.

In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a parachuter jumped down to Rocky Point HIgh School football field carrying a flag that was flown at Ground Zero. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Almost two decades ago, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) vividly remembers the dark moments of terrorism and its aftermath within the city. Recently Toulon recalled, “I was working for the New York City Department of Corrections as a captain assigned to the Firearms & Tactical Unit, and I remember my first thought was to secure and protect the range because the range had many millions of rounds of ammunition and thousands of firearms. As an EMT, I was then sent to respond to the scene like so many other first responders. Everyone who responded and volunteered at the site of the attack was hoping to save lives, and I was sent back to my post at DOCS because it quickly became obvious there were few survivors that day. I was able to contribute several years later in the helping to build a lasting memorial in Nesconset to all the heroes, the first responders, and all those that perished due to the 9/11 related illness. The 9/11 Responders Remembered Park was a labor of love for me and so many others who came together to recognize the sacrifices of all those who responded to Ground Zero.”  

During the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” At the turn of this new century, America on a beautiful, sunny, late summer day was changed forever. It seemed like yesterday that airplanes were re-routed to Canada, national airports grounded all flights, harbors were closed, and there were numerous security inspection checks through bridges and tunnels. But Americans came together in a positive spirit to overcome the unknown, while these current times are complicated, our citizens, including those on the North Shore, do not have to look far to recall the way that all groups of people came together during after 9/11. As in any part of our long history, the citizens of the U.S. has always proven to be a resilient people, able to rise up and defeat all daunting obstacles in its way.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Sheriff Errol Toulon (D) cuts the ribbon on the new resource center. Photo by David Luces

Providing former Suffolk County inmates with the tools they need to be productive members of society was the inspiration for the creation of a new facility in Yaphank. At a July 30 press event, sheriff officials said the facility will assist with jobs search, housing and other needs as they head back into the community.

Joel Anderson, of Mastic Beach, speaks at the Suffolk County jail’s resource center. Photo by David Luces

The Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry Team Resource Center is poised to offer a range of “practical transitional services” for inmates leaving the county jail including employment assistance, connections to housing, treatment and mental health care, among other things. It is staffed by correction officers and human service volunteers from the nonprofit community.

The START Center had a soft launch in February, stayed open during the height of the pandemic and currently serves more than 100 clients. A ribbon-cutting ceremony, previously planned for early April had to be postponed. Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D), District Attorney Tim Sini (D) and other county officials were on hand for the event.

Toulon said creating the facility had been a dream of his. At the event he spoke about his experiences working in law enforcement for more than 30 years and a moment he shared with his father.
“When I was a young child, I asked my father, a warden on Rikers Island, what he did for a living. He said, ‘We rehabilitate people,’” Toulon said.

When inmates are discharged and come into the center, they will be interviewed by one of the resource workers where they identify his or her needs. For example, if an inmate has an addiction problem, the center will connect them with the appropriate nonprofits.

“Whether it be housing, employment, education, SNAP benefits or transportation, we try to start the process as soon as possible,” Deputy Vincenzo Barone said.

He added that all inmates at the Yaphank Correctional Facility know about the program, with the center being a short walk from the jail there. Those being discharged from Riverhead will be picked up and brought to the START Center, where they will begin the intake process.

Joel Anderson, of Mastic Beach, who was released from jail in April, spoke at the press event about how the resource center has helped him get his life back on track.

“I’ve been in and out of prison all my life,” he said. “If I wasn’t a part of this process, being benefited by the program and services I wouldn’t be here to speak today. I’m standing here today because of the men and women who run this program. … I’m glad I made that call.”

Anderson said he continues to better himself every day.

“Rehabilitation is a process and it happens on a daily basis,” he said. “Now I have people I can reach out to — it’s not always peaches and cream. That wisdom, even if it is a little drop, makes all the difference in the world.”

Mark Barden, a founder of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, presents violence prevention strategies to a room full of Suffolk lawmakers and school officials during an Aug. 16 event at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue as Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. looks on. Photo by Alex Petroski

On Dec. 14, 2012, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut left more than 20 people dead, mostly first-graders, shocking the world and changing it permanently. Much of that change can be attributed to the efforts of those who were most personally impacted by the tragic events of that day.

Parents from Sandy Hook were invited to St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue Aug. 16 by Suffolk County Sheriff’s office to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools to a room packed with Suffolk County school district superintendents, administrators and lawmakers.

Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization, was founded by parents including Mark Barden, a professional musician originally from Yonkers who had moved to Newtown in 2007 with his wife to raise their three kids. His son, Daniel, was seven years old  when he was killed during the tragedy.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life,” Barden said of his son.

He said Daniel was known for trying to connect with other kids he saw eating alone, for holding doors for strangers in public, and for picking up earthworms from the hot sidewalk and moving them to safety in the grass, among other instinctual acts of kindness he regularly displayed.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life.”

— Mark Barden

“That’s how I’ve chosen to honor his life is through this work,” Barden said.

Sandy Hook Promise’s approach to carrying out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths can be viewed as an extension of Daniel’s legacy of caring for those in need. Barden was joined Aug. 16 by two other members of the organization — Myra Leuci, national account manager, and Marykay Wishneski, national program coordinator — who detailed the initiatives the nonprofit pitches to school districts interested in improving their prevention strategies.

The four strategies , which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk.

Say Something is an anonymous reporting system that teaches kids how to recognize warning signs, especially on social media, and gives them an outlet to get adults involved. Start With Hello is a training program that teaches students how to be more inclusive and connected to peers. Safety Assessment & Intervention program is geared toward adults and aims to teach them how to identify, assess and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior prior to a situation developing. The Signs of Suicide program teaches people how to identify and intervene to get help for those displaying signs of depression or suicidal behavior. The nonprofit offers in-person training for each program, though Say Something and Start With Hello are available to be downloaded and self-led by interested districts.

Since assuming office in January, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said he has made improving school safety and developing uniform, countywide approaches a top priority. Just a few weeks into his tenure, the country was rocked by the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman.

“It’s an obligation that I feel I have as the Suffolk County Sheriff, to work with all of our partners, but I do feel I cannot stand on the sidelines and just watch,” Toulon said. “We really have to be proactive. Everyone from our police departments, our school administrators, everybody’s taking this banner on. Thankfully we’re all working together to really keep our communities and our children safe.”

Toulon has offered free safety assessments on a voluntary basis to interested districts. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) has taken several steps  already to improve schools’ safety including starting an initiative that allows interested districts to grant access to in-school security cameras to the police department, and securing funds for a mobile phone application for municipal workers and school district employees that can be activated and used in the event of an active shooter situation to notify law enforcement. Bellone announced new initiatives to increase police patrols in school buildings, assign additional officers to the SCPD’s Homeland Security Section and establish a text tip line to report troubling activities this month.

“We are educators, so partnering with law enforcement and those with the skilled lens of how to best ensure the safety of our students has been paramount,” said Ken Bossert, president of Suffolk County Superintendents Association who leads Elwood school district. “So the focus and attention that law enforcement has paid on our schools is just greatly appreciated.”

Representatives from districts across the North Shore attended the informational forum and expressed interest in implementing some or all of what Sandy Hook Promise has to offer, including Huntington Superintendent James Polansky and Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents.”

— Kara Hahn

“A lot of what we heard today I’m going to roll out just informationally to my administrative staff,” Polansky said, adding Huntington has taken up Toulon on his offer to assess building safety already. “We’re actually looking to pursue a lot of the initiatives Sandy Hook Promise has to offer.”

Casciano expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s a great resource, and we’re very interested in pursuing it,” he said. “We’ll be making our contacts.”

Several attendees commended Toulon for embracing a leadership role on school safety, including Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D), who was among the wide array of lawmakers at the event along with the school officials.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who is a licensed social worker. She called Toulon’s approach incredibly important. “It shows that he has the recognition that when you have a shooter at the door of a school, it’s too late, and this really needs to be about prevention. We cannot police this, we need to prevent this. And that’s what this is about.”

Bossert said superintendents in the county have been working to put together a uniform blueprint for school safety and are planning to roll it out later this month. For more information about Sandy Hook Promise, visit www.sandyhookpromise.org.

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It’s the end of July so it’s likely the minds of students, administrators and parents have drifted far away from the hallways of their schools, away from school board meetings and discussions about funding safety improvements. It’s understandable. But following an in-office, exclusive interview with Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) July 20, county residents should sleep well knowing he has allowed himself no such break.

Hardening schools for the worst-case scenario — an intruder entering a local school with the means and intent to impose lethal, widespread harm — has become a top priority for districts across the country since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. In the absence of substantive action on tightening gun laws with commonsense reform coming from the increasingly feckless Washington anytime soon, local municipalities and schools have had to get creative.

This week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed a bill permitting the county to pursue bond funding for a mobile application that government employees and school administrators will be able to download and use to directly contact law enforcement in the event of a shooting at a school or government building. In the aftermath of Parkland, Bellone announced an initiative that would allow districts interested in participating to grant access to school security systems to the Suffolk County Police Department, so that in the case of an emergency, law enforcement can see exactly what’s going on in the school. New York State passed its own set of bills in the spring as well, mostly geared toward allocating funds to districts interested in securing infrastructure or hiring additional security or mental health personnel.

These plans are a great start, especially, again, since we would all turn blue in the face holding our breath waiting for Congress. But Toulon raised some issues that seemed to us like they needed to be heard.

When asked if he could wave a magic wand and grant one thing to all 69 of Suffolk’s school districts to make them more secure, he identified establishing uniform practices countywide for training security — armed or otherwise — so that responders have a better feel for what they’re walking into should one of these dark days strike close to home. Uncertainty about what to expect between police and school district security should be the last thing either should be worried about in the midst of a frantic mission to save lives.

Further, Toulon said he has made his office available to districts interested in having their security practices assessed on a voluntary basis. So far, he said just 10 of the 69 districts have taken him up on the offer. We’d like to see that number reach 100 percent by the end of this year.

In addition, the sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk school superintendents Aug. 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas. The offices of the sheriff and county executive have not let this issue fade away during the summer months, and we hope schools haven’t forgotten either.

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.”

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.”