Just a few weeks in as Suffolk’s new sheriff, and Errol Toulon Jr.’s been off and running.
On Jan. 12, Toulon — a last-minute entry into an unexpectedly exciting race for sheriff — was sworn in by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in an inauguration that felt more like a gathering of family and friends than other such ceremonial events.
On Jan. 17, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Toulon was keynote speaker at the NAACP Huntington branch jubilee program at Bethel A.M.E. Church.
“That’s all you can ask for when you walk into a place — not that you are looked at for the color of your skin, but that you are respected for the qualifications you bring,” he told the gathering.
Last week, Toulon — the first African-American elected to a county post on Long Island — was back in Huntington. This time, he spoke to fourth-graders at Flower Hill Primary School, who recently had completed a six-week Gang Resistant Education and Training program.
“I like talking to children,” Toulon, a Democrat, said in an interview Friday. “I like to get to children before they get to me, every chance I get, to be a positive role model, or to relax people’s fears of interacting with law enforcement.”
Toulon, a former corrections officer and former deputy commissioner of operations for New York City’s corrections department, won in a tight race against Republican Larry Zacarese, an assistant chief of the Stony Brook University police.
“I think that the residents of Suffolk County wanted the most qualified individual to run their sheriff’s department and I think that’s what I mostly bring to the office,” Toulon said, noting that he had just 53 days to campaign before the election.
“I feel like I have been preparing for this job all of my life,” said Toulon, 56, whose father and brother worked in corrections.
He takes over a department whose operations came under federal scrutiny when former Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who attended Toulon’s inauguration, went to the U.S. attorney’s office with allegations against Edward Walsh, a former sheriff’s lieutenant who also was leader of the Suffolk County Conservative Party.
Last June, Walsh was sentenced to 2 years in prison following his conviction on federal charges of wire fraud and theft of government services for pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sheriff’s department while golfing, gambling and politicking on county time.
The sheriff’s department, with 1,200 corrections officers, deputies and civilian employees, is responsible for running jails in Yaphank and Riverhead. Among other duties, the department also handles evictions and patrols highways on the East End.
“It is very important for me to speak, and to meet everyone to let them know I care about the safety and concerns of staff, the safety and concerns of inmates,” Toulon said. “I want to be a visible presence and have a hands-on approach.”
Toulon also wants to address gang violence, making use of intelligence gathered in Suffolk jails to help police and other agencies. He wants to address Suffolk’s substance-abuse issues. He wants to steer kids away from behaviors and activities that could land them in jail, while helping inmates get what is necessary to help themselves when they are released.
In addition to his professional role, Toulon acknowledged, he has a duty as a positive role model.
“It wasn’t until two weeks before Election Day that someone mentioned to me that if I was elected, I would be the first African-American elected to a countywide position,” he said.
“ . . . It really had not sunk in until I began to go to community events, where I am very well received by all members of Suffolk County,” he said. “I am starting to realize the impact of this election. It really is not for me personally,” he said, “it’s more for Suffolk residents.”