In an historic moment Friday, Errol Toulon Jr. was sworn-in as Suffolk County Sheriff in an inauguration ceremony at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood.
The 67th sheriff to serve the county, he is not only the first African-American to serve in the post, but the first African-American elected to a non-judicial county-wide seat in the county’s history.
“We’ve reached a new level, not since 1683, when they had the first sheriff of Suffolk County,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who led Mr. Toulon in the oath of office. “This sheriff is different.”
The focus went beyond skin color. Suffolk County Executive Bellone spoke of his character and how he survived Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic cancer and a cardiac tamponade. “I have personally seen him face these difficulties with incredible grace, dignity and fortitude. He has confronted all of these challenges and persevered, which is actually what you want in a leader.”
Both the Governor and the county executive touted him as the most qualified person to ever serve.
He spent “more than 20 years patrolling the toughest streets in any community: our jails,” Mr. Bellone told the audience. He served with distinction as an officer in the New York City Department of Correction, following in the footsteps of his father, Errol Toulon Sr.
“I can’t understand why anyone would want to do that,” joked Mr. Cuomo, who followed his father into politics.
A Lake Grove resident, Mr. Toulon became a key member of Mr. Bellone’s administration as an assistant deputy county executive for public safety in 2012. Two years later, he left that post to become a deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Correction, and was replaced in the county by Tim Sini, who was also elected in November as the new county district attorney.
Mr. Toulon entered the race for sheriff late, spending just 53 days on the campaign trail, after several other Democratic candidates fell through. By that time his opponent, Lawrence Zacarese, an assistant chief of the Stony Brook University police, had forced a Republican primary and won the G.O.P. nomination.
The two proved formidable opponents with the election too close to call on election night. Once the 14,000 absentee ballots were counted, Mr. Toulon led Mr. Zacarese by just over 2,000 votes.
“And as for Suffolk County not being ready for a black Sheriff, I guess the people of this great county proved the pundits wrong,” Mr. Toulon told the audience. “Indeed I thought it was very ironic that my opponent congratulated me on the 67th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks decided not to give her seat up on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama,” he said. The crowd erupted in applause.
He acknowledged DuWayne Gregory, the first African-American named presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. “He is a pioneer and a friend and I would like to thank him for helping pave the way for my success,” the sheriff said.
“While we celebrate today, our work is just beginning,” Mr. Toulon said. “We have to ensure we deliver as a society and assist those who need help and keep those who do harm off our streets.”
He pledged to work with members of law enforcement throughout the county to share information and fight rising gang violence and the opioid epidemic.
“For those already incarcerated and serving time in our county jail, we will help them transition back home with the proper resources if they want the help. My goal with our young children is to get to them before they get to me. I will do everything in my power to prevent them from joining a gang or getting addicted to opioids.”
In the weeks leading up to him taking office, he said he began to lay the groundwork to address crime, recidivism and the opioid crisis. He plans to create a task force “to prevent those with chronic mental illness from cycling in and out of our jails by connecting them to case management services prior to their release.”
In a conversation before he took office, he said he would follow through on a campaign promise to ensure all sheriff’s office employees were up-to-date on training. Due to fiscal constraints, there had been gaps in ongoing training, he said.
“How do you hold someone accountable to do their job if they haven’t been training in four, five, six years?” he said. “We can’t get around not training our staff and I’m not going to let that happen.”
Under his supervision are 900 correction officers, sworn peace officers who are charged with the care, custody and control of the inmates, 270 deputy sheriffs, who are sworn police officers and oversee evictions, orders of protections, warrants and more, as well as 120 civilian employees.
Mr. Toulon said he plans be visible in the community so he can not only hear community concerns, allow the community knows what the sheriff does, but also as a recruitment tool. “I do think that the sheriff’s office is a forgotten piece of law enforcement in the community,” he said.
“Having battled cancer twice, I have always promised myself that I would live my life with no regrets and fully embrace the values and courage in the oath of honor that I took when I began my career almost 36 years ago as a young graduate in the correction academy,” he told the audience at his inauguration celebration. “For me this race is a whirlwind, but this job is one I’ve been preparing for my entire life.”
Photo caption: Gov. Andrew Cuomo presided over Errol D. Toulon Jr.’s oath of office Friday at the Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood. Dr. Toulon’s wife, Christina Toulon, held the Bible. (Credit: New York State Governor’s office)