Suffolk's top cop:  'I don't sleep at night'

Rodney Harrison faced a long list of daunting challenges when he became Suffolk police commissioner in December, including trying to solve the Gilgo Beach murders, boosting the number of Black, Latino and other minority officers in the department and implementing the county’s 1,000-page reform plan designed to bring more police accountability and integrity.

Roughly eight months into it, Harrison said his administration has taken steps to achieve those goals and others since he succeeded Geraldine Hart as Suffolk’s top cop. 

“I don’t sleep at night,” the former NYPD chief of department told Newsday during a recent wide-ranging interview in his office at Suffolk police headquarters in Yaphank, as he reflected on his time at the helm of one of the largest police departments in the country. “I’m always worried about everything from terrorist threats to one of my officers getting hurt.”

In his relatively short tenure, Harrison said he has found support for police from Suffolk residents and county legislators, as well as quality of work he has seen from the department’s detective squads and patrol units. 

"I’m trying to make this department a professional police department, that is being transparent and holding officers accountable," he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat who nominated Harrison to become police commissioner with a salary of $220,000, is high on his hire.

"He's doing a fantastic job," Bellone said. "In a really short period of time, he came in and implemented major parts of the reform plan," Bellone said, adding Harrison has been responsible for starting the deployment of body cameras to officers on patrol, and presided over changes in how the department responds to mental health crises.

Bellone said Harrison has made it a priority to get to know the county and its diverse communities. When Masjid Fatima Al-Zahra was vandalized in early July, Harrison immediately reached out to leaders of the Ronkonkoma mosque to reassure them that the Suffolk police are there for them, the county executive said.

Long Island community leaders and civil rights activists give Harrison high marks for what they said is his accessibility, his eagerness to become acquainted with Suffolk’s diverse communities and his willingness to listen to their concerns. 

“He understands the importance of being pro-police and pro-community,” said Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director of the NAACP and a member of the task force that drafted the reform plan. “He understands you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

When teens worried about anti-gay violence at the LGBT Network’s Youth Prom in June, president David Kilmnick said, Harrison didn’t hesitate to send additional officers to the event. 

“He has been responsive, professional and open,” said Kilmnick, also a member of the reform plan task force. “What I see is forward movement."

Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said Harrison is doing a good job. “He’s still adjusting from a big city police department to a big suburban police department without as many resources.”

McCaffrey said Harrison has successfully balanced community concerns about over-aggressive policing and public safety in Suffolk County, and he said he appreciates Harrison’s advocacy for technology such as body cameras. “I think that has been really helpful,” McCaffrey said.

One critic of the police commissioner, Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective, said Harrison has been “unresponsive” to issues he’s raised regarding staffing and what Trotta deems an illegal use of union dues to support political campaigns without officers’ consent. “I’ve told him about major issues, major problems in the police department, and he hasn’t addressed them,” Trotta said.

Trotta also accused the commissioner of wasting taxpayer dollars by having Suffolk police detectives drive him around the county and to do advance work prior to his arrival at public places. "He’s under the delusion that he’s somehow important and needs an advance person and a driver," Trotta said.

The department issued a statement addressing Trotta's comments. "As other county-wide officials do, at times the Commissioner will utilize a driver on days with several events back-to-back to enable him to work while in the car and prepare for his upcoming meeting or event," said Derek Poppe, a spokesman for the department. “An advance team member may be utilized to ensure the safety of the Commissioner and members of the public when meeting in a public place.”

Harrison, 53, spent 30 years with the NYPD — the largest police department in the country with over 30,000 officers and where he also served as chief of detectives and chief of patrol — before joining the Suffolk County Police Department at the tail-end of 2021. He is the first Black person in the department’s 62-year history to lead the 2,500-officer force, an agency which continues to struggle to recruit minority candidates.

“I’m humbled being the first African American police commissioner, but I also feel I am deserving of it,” Harrison said. “I want to believe I didn’t get it for the color of my skin. I want to believe I got it for my work ethic and my experience in law enforcement.”

Harrison said he has found high levels of support for police from Suffolk residents and county legislators, as well as quality of work he has seen from the department’s detective squads and patrol units. He said he is trying to bring a culture of integrity to the department.

Harrison’s ultimate success as commissioner, community leaders and activists said, will depend on his ability to change the culture of a department stained in the past by corruption and misconduct.

The agency continues to operate under a 2013 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that called for an overhaul of policing in minority communities, a deal reached after Suffolk police were accused of not fully investigating reports on attacks on Latinos after an Ecuadorian immigrant was fatally stabbed in 2008.

The department is also trying to restore its image after former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke pleaded guilty to beating a handcuffed burglary suspect in 2012, and orchestrating a cover-up that also led to the conviction of former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and chief aide, Christopher McPartland, on obstruction, witness tampering and conspiracy charges in connection with the scandal.

Last year, Suffolk officers were accused of beating auto-theft suspect Christopher Cruz while other cops, including a supervisor, allegedly failed to stop or report the assault. Police officials suspended two officers; no one was charged criminally.

“I hope he speaks out vociferously against the failure of officers to intervene when they see other cops doing something wrong,” said civil rights activist Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. “I want to hear him say this won’t be tolerated on his watch.”

Community leaders and civil rights activists have for years complained that the overwhelmingly white department does not reflect the county’s diversity.  

Harrison said the feedback he has received from minority communities about his officers has been positive. “What I am hearing and seeing is that the majority of minority communities like their local police officers,” Harrison said. 

But Suffolk police will have to become much more aggressive in recruiting minority candidates for the department, Harrison acknowledged. Only 63 of the department’s approximately 2,500 officers are Black, according to the commissioner. “That is two percent,” Harrison said. “That does not mirror this county.”

He said he has encouraged young people during visits to schools and organizations to take the police test when it is again offered in June 2023 and challenged Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, chief of staff Greacia Herdsman, police fraternal groups and others to get the word out. He said the department needs to take advantage of events such as the annual Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade in Brentwood to recruit minority candidates. 

As Newsday reported last year, minority applicants in recent years have been rejected at a much higher rate than their white peers. Minority candidates have been frequently disqualified because of their performances in the agility test and in interviews. Harrison said he is working with community organizations to provide coaching in those areas. 

The top cop has also earned praise from a powerful union. Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo credits Harrison for steps he said the commissioner has taken to improve officer safety, which include the installation of partitions in patrol cars and a ban on prisoners riding in the front seat. Harrison also ordered officers to double up in cars in areas known for high violent crime rates and he had radios that didn’t work well in parts of the sprawling county upgraded. 

“He recognizes the challenges faced by officers in Suffolk County,” DiGerolamo said. “He made tough decisions despite the financial impact for officers’ well-being."

Harrison promised to solve the Gilgo Beach murders after he was nominated commissioner. The decadelong investigation sputtered for years after the remains of 10 people were found near Ocean Parkway because Burke, then under investigation by the FBI, refused to work with federal investigators. Hart and her predecessor, Timothy Sini, brought the FBI back into the investigation, but Harrison believes the case requires a full-time team. 

In February, Harrison created a task force that includes investigators from Suffolk police as well as the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the New York State Police. Those investigators’ sole focus, Harrison said, is solving the murders that brought international attention to Long Island. 

“I truly believe that we are going to get to the bottom of who committed these crimes, whether one perpetrator or several perpetrators,” said Harrison, who declined to discuss specific leads the task force is pursuing or investigative techniques it might be using. 

The commissioner has since made available video of one of the Gilgo victims leaving a Long Island hotel prior to her disappearance. He also released the transcripts of 911 calls Shannan Gilbert — a woman who went missing in May of 2010 and sparked the police search along the Ocean Parkway — made the night she was last seen alive.

Harrison said he has also been busy implementing the county's reform plan.

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered local governments to reform law-enforcement agencies in June 2020, shortly after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparking months of nationwide protests over cop misconduct. Community advocates and members of the task force that drafted the Suffolk reform plan said they are so far impressed with how Harrison has embraced the plan and worked to implement it. 

The department began equipping cops with body cameras — a major part of the reform plan — last month. Until then, Suffolk was one of the largest police department in the country that had not widely equipped officers with body cameras.

Harrison said he has also begun diverting some 911 calls to crisis hotline workers, an attempt to de-escalate tensions between responding officers and residents with mental illness. The department is also referring residents with mental health issues who are the subject of three or more 911 calls in six months to mental health professionals. 

“That was a big priority for the task force,” said panel member Serena Liguori, the executive director of New Hour for Women & Children, a social services agency. “It is going to change the landscape of policing in Suffok County.”

The reform plan also calls for the county’s Human Rights Commission to review police misconduct complaints in tandem with the Suffolk police Internal Affairs Commission. Harrison said HRC investigators are being trained and the agency should begin working with Internal Affairs officers later this summer. He has also added four more investigators to the Internal Affairs staff and plans to add more in the future. 

Internal Affairs, Harrison said, is now based in an isolated area in Hauppauge, “so they are not running into people in Yaphank they may be investigating.” He has also laid out punishments for specific infractions.

As Newsday reported in March, a Suffolk cop who got into an accident while under the influence in 2014, severely injuring a 20-year-old man, lost just four days’ pay or vacation time and received a $150 ticket for refusing to submit to a field breath test. Officers who now hurt somebody while driving under the influence will be suspended for 30 days and the department will attempt to fire them, Harrison said. Officers who lie to Internal Affairs investigators face 20-day suspensions.

“Those are two things that I saw when I came into this position that I was very alarmed about, that you had people committing this kind of misconduct and there was no discipline behind it, there was no guaranteed discipline,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he is also determined to keep crime low. There were 16,115 total crimes reported in Suffolk in 2020 and 15,119 reported in 2021, according to the transparency hub on the department’s website. There were 4,129 crimes reported for the first quarter of 2022. If that trend continues, there will be 16,516 total crimes reported in Harrison’s first year as commissioner.

The top cop said the department is also closely tracking gang activity.

“We do see a spike in gang violence out here in Suffolk County," he said.  "A lot of it is being sparked by social media comments, going back and forth."

He said he department is aiming to bring precision policing to the county to be able to build conspiracy cases against these gangs and strong cases to send offenders to jail.

Looking forward, Harrison said his top priority is making the department better.

“What we are looking to do out here is diversity this department, make sure integrity is in place, and accountability," he said. "I have a good team in place.”

With Nicole Fuller

Rodney Harrison faced a long list of daunting challenges when he became Suffolk police commissioner in December, including trying to solve the Gilgo Beach murders, boosting the number of Black, Latino and other minority officers in the department and implementing the county’s 1,000-page reform plan designed to bring more police accountability and integrity.

Roughly eight months into it, Harrison said his administration has taken steps to achieve those goals and others since he succeeded Geraldine Hart as Suffolk’s top cop. 

“I don’t sleep at night,” the former NYPD chief of department told Newsday during a recent wide-ranging interview in his office at Suffolk police headquarters in Yaphank, as he reflected on his time at the helm of one of the largest police departments in the country. “I’m always worried about everything from terrorist threats to one of my officers getting hurt.”

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks about weapons and keeping the community safe.  Credit: Newsday/Chris Ware

In his relatively short tenure, Harrison said he has found support for police from Suffolk residents and county legislators, as well as quality of work he has seen from the department’s detective squads and patrol units. 

"I’m trying to make this department a professional police department, that is being transparent and holding officers accountable," he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat who nominated Harrison to become police commissioner with a salary of $220,000, is high on his hire.

"He's doing a fantastic job," Bellone said. "In a really short period of time, he came in and implemented major parts of the reform plan," Bellone said, adding Harrison has been responsible for starting the deployment of body cameras to officers on patrol, and presided over changes in how the department responds to mental health crises.

Bellone said Harrison has made it a priority to get to know the county and its diverse communities. When Masjid Fatima Al-Zahra was vandalized in early July, Harrison immediately reached out to leaders of the Ronkonkoma mosque to reassure them that the Suffolk police are there for them, the county executive said.

'Pro-police and pro-community'

Long Island community leaders and civil rights activists give Harrison high marks for what they said is his accessibility, his eagerness to become acquainted with Suffolk’s diverse communities and his willingness to listen to their concerns. 

“He understands the importance of being pro-police and pro-community,” said Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director of the NAACP and a member of the task force that drafted the reform plan. “He understands you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

When teens worried about anti-gay violence at the LGBT Network’s Youth Prom in June, president David Kilmnick said, Harrison didn’t hesitate to send additional officers to the event. 

“He has been responsive, professional and open,” said Kilmnick, also a member of the reform plan task force. “What I see is forward movement."

Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said Harrison is doing a good job. “He’s still adjusting from a big city police department to a big suburban police department without as many resources.”

McCaffrey said Harrison has successfully balanced community concerns about over-aggressive policing and public safety in Suffolk County, and he said he appreciates Harrison’s advocacy for technology such as body cameras. “I think that has been really helpful,” McCaffrey said.

One critic of the police commissioner, Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective, said Harrison has been “unresponsive” to issues he’s raised regarding staffing and what Trotta deems an illegal use of union dues to support political campaigns without officers’ consent. “I’ve told him about major issues, major problems in the police department, and he hasn’t addressed them,” Trotta said.

Trotta also accused the commissioner of wasting taxpayer dollars by having Suffolk police detectives drive him around the county and to do advance work prior to his arrival at public places. "He’s under the delusion that he’s somehow important and needs an advance person and a driver," Trotta said.

The department issued a statement addressing Trotta's comments. "As other county-wide officials do, at times the Commissioner will utilize a driver on days with several events back-to-back to enable him to work while in the car and prepare for his upcoming meeting or event," said Derek Poppe, a spokesman for the department. “An advance team member may be utilized to ensure the safety of the Commissioner and members of the public when meeting in a public place.”

Suffolk's first African American police commissioner

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks about being the first Black commissioner in Suffolk police history. Credit: Newsday/Chris Ware

Harrison, 53, spent 30 years with the NYPD — the largest police department in the country with over 30,000 officers and where he also served as chief of detectives and chief of patrol — before joining the Suffolk County Police Department at the tail-end of 2021. He is the first Black person in the department’s 62-year history to lead the 2,500-officer force, an agency which continues to struggle to recruit minority candidates.

“I’m humbled being the first African American police commissioner, but I also feel I am deserving of it,” Harrison said. “I want to believe I didn’t get it for the color of my skin. I want to believe I got it for my work ethic and my experience in law enforcement.”

Harrison said he has found high levels of support for police from Suffolk residents and county legislators, as well as quality of work he has seen from the department’s detective squads and patrol units. He said he is trying to bring a culture of integrity to the department.

Harrison’s ultimate success as commissioner, community leaders and activists said, will depend on his ability to change the culture of a department stained in the past by corruption and misconduct.

The agency continues to operate under a 2013 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that called for an overhaul of policing in minority communities, a deal reached after Suffolk police were accused of not fully investigating reports on attacks on Latinos after an Ecuadorian immigrant was fatally stabbed in 2008.

The department is also trying to restore its image after former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke pleaded guilty to beating a handcuffed burglary suspect in 2012, and orchestrating a cover-up that also led to the conviction of former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and chief aide, Christopher McPartland, on obstruction, witness tampering and conspiracy charges in connection with the scandal.

Last year, Suffolk officers were accused of beating auto-theft suspect Christopher Cruz while other cops, including a supervisor, allegedly failed to stop or report the assault. Police officials suspended two officers; no one was charged criminally.

“I hope he speaks out vociferously against the failure of officers to intervene when they see other cops doing something wrong,” said civil rights activist Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. “I want to hear him say this won’t be tolerated on his watch.”

Recruiting minority police candidates

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks about minority hires. Credit: Newsday/Chris Ware

Community leaders and civil rights activists have for years complained that the overwhelmingly white department does not reflect the county’s diversity.  

Harrison said the feedback he has received from minority communities about his officers has been positive. “What I am hearing and seeing is that the majority of minority communities like their local police officers,” Harrison said. 

But Suffolk police will have to become much more aggressive in recruiting minority candidates for the department, Harrison acknowledged. Only 63 of the department’s approximately 2,500 officers are Black, according to the commissioner. “That is two percent,” Harrison said. “That does not mirror this county.”

He said he has encouraged young people during visits to schools and organizations to take the police test when it is again offered in June 2023 and challenged Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, chief of staff Greacia Herdsman, police fraternal groups and others to get the word out. He said the department needs to take advantage of events such as the annual Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade in Brentwood to recruit minority candidates. 

As Newsday reported last year, minority applicants in recent years have been rejected at a much higher rate than their white peers. Minority candidates have been frequently disqualified because of their performances in the agility test and in interviews. Harrison said he is working with community organizations to provide coaching in those areas. 

The top cop has also earned praise from a powerful union. Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo credits Harrison for steps he said the commissioner has taken to improve officer safety, which include the installation of partitions in patrol cars and a ban on prisoners riding in the front seat. Harrison also ordered officers to double up in cars in areas known for high violent crime rates and he had radios that didn’t work well in parts of the sprawling county upgraded. 

“He recognizes the challenges faced by officers in Suffolk County,” DiGerolamo said. “He made tough decisions despite the financial impact for officers’ well-being."

A promise to solve the Gilgo murders

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks about the Gilgo beach murder investigation.  Credit: Newsday/Chris Ware

Harrison promised to solve the Gilgo Beach murders after he was nominated commissioner. The decadelong investigation sputtered for years after the remains of 10 people were found near Ocean Parkway because Burke, then under investigation by the FBI, refused to work with federal investigators. Hart and her predecessor, Timothy Sini, brought the FBI back into the investigation, but Harrison believes the case requires a full-time team. 

In February, Harrison created a task force that includes investigators from Suffolk police as well as the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the New York State Police. Those investigators’ sole focus, Harrison said, is solving the murders that brought international attention to Long Island. 

“I truly believe that we are going to get to the bottom of who committed these crimes, whether one perpetrator or several perpetrators,” said Harrison, who declined to discuss specific leads the task force is pursuing or investigative techniques it might be using. 

The commissioner has since made available video of one of the Gilgo victims leaving a Long Island hotel prior to her disappearance. He also released the transcripts of 911 calls Shannan Gilbert — a woman who went missing in May of 2010 and sparked the police search along the Ocean Parkway — made the night she was last seen alive.

Implementing body cameras and other reforms

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison speaks about the current police reform plan.  Credit: Newday/Chris Ware

Harrison said he has also been busy implementing the county's reform plan.

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered local governments to reform law-enforcement agencies in June 2020, shortly after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparking months of nationwide protests over cop misconduct. Community advocates and members of the task force that drafted the Suffolk reform plan said they are so far impressed with how Harrison has embraced the plan and worked to implement it. 

The department began equipping cops with body cameras — a major part of the reform plan — last month. Until then, Suffolk was one of the largest police department in the country that had not widely equipped officers with body cameras.

Harrison said he has also begun diverting some 911 calls to crisis hotline workers, an attempt to de-escalate tensions between responding officers and residents with mental illness. The department is also referring residents with mental health issues who are the subject of three or more 911 calls in six months to mental health professionals. 

“That was a big priority for the task force,” said panel member Serena Liguori, the executive director of New Hour for Women & Children, a social services agency. “It is going to change the landscape of policing in Suffok County.”

The reform plan also calls for the county’s Human Rights Commission to review police misconduct complaints in tandem with the Suffolk police Internal Affairs Commission. Harrison said HRC investigators are being trained and the agency should begin working with Internal Affairs officers later this summer. He has also added four more investigators to the Internal Affairs staff and plans to add more in the future. 

Internal Affairs, Harrison said, is now based in an isolated area in Hauppauge, “so they are not running into people in Yaphank they may be investigating.” He has also laid out punishments for specific infractions.

As Newsday reported in March, a Suffolk cop who got into an accident while under the influence in 2014, severely injuring a 20-year-old man, lost just four days’ pay or vacation time and received a $150 ticket for refusing to submit to a field breath test. Officers who now hurt somebody while driving under the influence will be suspended for 30 days and the department will attempt to fire them, Harrison said. Officers who lie to Internal Affairs investigators face 20-day suspensions.

“Those are two things that I saw when I came into this position that I was very alarmed about, that you had people committing this kind of misconduct and there was no discipline behind it, there was no guaranteed discipline,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he is also determined to keep crime low. There were 16,115 total crimes reported in Suffolk in 2020 and 15,119 reported in 2021, according to the transparency hub on the department’s website. There were 4,129 crimes reported for the first quarter of 2022. If that trend continues, there will be 16,516 total crimes reported in Harrison’s first year as commissioner.

The top cop said the department is also closely tracking gang activity.

“We do see a spike in gang violence out here in Suffolk County," he said.  "A lot of it is being sparked by social media comments, going back and forth."

He said he department is aiming to bring precision policing to the county to be able to build conspiracy cases against these gangs and strong cases to send offenders to jail.

Looking forward, Harrison said his top priority is making the department better.

“What we are looking to do out here is diversity this department, make sure integrity is in place, and accountability," he said. "I have a good team in place.”

With Nicole Fuller