Incoming Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine has been tasked with making one of the most consequential decisions of his administration before he is sworn in: selecting a police commissioner.
Romaine, a Republican who won election in a decisive 14-point victory last month and will begin his tenure in January, said recently that he would eschew the national searches for law enforcement talent favored by his predecessor and instead look locally in an effort to fill the post expeditiously.
"I'm not for that [a nationwide search] because I think the leadership is needed now,” Romaine said last week to about 70 members of his transition team assembled for a meeting in Hauppauge. "What we will probably need is a localized search."
Applicants already have begun submitting resumes, Romaine told his transition team last week. His transition team has named a working group of law enforcement officials to advise him as he examines candidates for the post overseeing about 2,500 sworn officers.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Incoming Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine said he would search locally for candidates to replace outgoing police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison to lead the 2,500-member department.
- Applicants already have begun submitting resumes, Romaine told his transition team last week.
- Harrison, who was appointed by outgoing Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announced his retirement in early November after a two-year tenure.
Suffolk's outgoing police commissioner, Rodney K. Harrison, who was appointed by outgoing Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announced his retirement in early November after a two-year tenure. Harrison was paid $235,502 in 2022.
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said all eyes will be trained on Suffolk's next police commissioner, given the international media attention paid to the Gilgo Beach serial killer investigation and a series of scandals that marred the department's reputation.
"This is a pretty critical juncture, with how far they've taken the Gilgo Beach investigation and the reforms that have been instituted, so I'm hoping they choose someone who has an extensive investigative background … Ideally, you hope to promote from within, but with Suffolk County being how it is with all the politics and everything else, you probably need an outsider to continue the reforms," Giacalone said.
A key role
Romaine, the Brookhaven Town supervisor for the past decade, declined to be interviewed for this article through Mike Martino, the spokesman for Romaine's transition team. Martino, in response to emailed questions, said Romaine will seek counsel from a raft of advisers, including Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney.
“The transition process has only just begun, and dozens of people interested in serving on County Executive Romaine’s team are sending in resumes every day," Martino said. "The police commissioner is a key position, and filling this critical role will entail interviewing highly qualified candidates and input from many advisers, especially DA Tierney.”
Tierney, in an interview, confirmed that he plans to offer his insight.
"I think what we have to do is we have to move the department forward," said Tierney, who oversaw the body camera unit when he worked in the Brooklyn district attorney's office. "We can’t stay backward. We have to innovate. We have to have someone who’s capable of meeting the demands of the police department given the challenges of criminal justice reform, discovery reform, body-worn cameras and the changes in technology."
Tierney, who clashed publicly with Harrison after the commissioner appeared at a news conference with defense attorney John Ray and urged potential witnesses in the Gilgo Beach case to contact Ray, said he appreciates the opportunity to weigh in, given how closely the police department and district attorney's office work together.
"I think it’s humbling, I think it says a lot about him," the district attorney said of Romaine. "He knows what he's an expert in and he knows that sometimes it's helpful to speak with others to fill in whatever information is needed."
Names of candidates emerge
Romaine's camp has declined to name the applicants. But several names have emerged in political circles: Kevin Catalina, a former NYPD official and the current Suffolk undersheriff; Stuart Cameron, the Old Westbury police chief who was previously Suffolk's chief of department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer; Risco Mention-Lewis, Suffolk's deputy police commissioner; Robert Waring, Suffolk's chief of department; Stan Grodski, Suffolk's deputy chief of patrol; Gerard McCarthy, Suffolk's retired three-star chief of operations; and Noel DiGerolamo, the former president of Suffolk's largest police union.
DiGerolamo, who is one of six advisers on law enforcement issues on Romaine's transition team, was the only potential candidate to expressly throw cold water on the possibility.
"Absolutely not," DiGerolamo said. "I am not. I have no interest. Never ever. I have no desire nor would I think that there aren't others who are better suited than myself."
McCarthy, who retired from the department in 2021, confirmed that he applied for the job, but declined to comment further.
The current police department employees did not respond to requests for comment on their potential interest in the job through a department spokesperson.
Catalina declined to comment. Cameron, when asked about his interest in the job recently, heaped praise on Romaine and didn't rule himself out: "Whoever gets to serve as [police commissioner] for him would be fortunate."
Addressing 'the needs of the community'
Serena Martin-Liguori, a police reform advocate and the executive director of New Hour, a Brentwood-based nonprofit that assists currently and formerly incarcerated women and their families, said she had a good relationship with Harrison.
"We were sad to see him go," Martin-Liguori said. "I haven’t heard from Ed Romaine or his staff, which is really disappointing. But we’re looking forward to working with him … For us, it’s not about what political party you belong to, it’s about how you address the needs of the community."
Martin-Liguori served on Suffolk County's Police Reform & Reinvention Task Force, which was tasked with recommending reforms to the police department under a statewide directive spurred by the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. She said she hopes Romaine continues to institute reforms in the police department, including efforts to increase the number of Black and Latino police officers and more training for officers to effectively deal with people experiencing mental health crises.
Those reforms included the mandate that Suffolk police officers wear body-worn cameras to create greater transparency during encounters between the police and the public.
Martin-Liguori said her late grandmother, a Democrat who admired Romaine, had told her that Romaine "really cares about the people in the community," which has heightened her expectations.
"I’m hopeful that that’s going to be the case, to really focus and address the needs of our Black and Brown communities and really address that in a commissioner for the police department," she said.
Four top cops during a 12-year tenure
While this will be Romaine's first time selecting a police commissioner, which must be confirmed by the county legislature, it might not be his last. Bellone, a term-limited Democrat, went through the process of selecting a police commissioner four times during his 12-year tenure.
His first commissioner was Edward Webber, who ended up being little more than a figurehead under the leadership of James Burke, who Bellone installed as the chief of department.
Burke spent most of 48 months in federal prison for beating a handcuffed suspect who stole his duffel bag filled with sex toys and then conspiring with other officers to cover it up — a scandal that rocked the department and ultimately led to the downfall of former Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota, who is serving a 5-year federal prison sentence for his part in the cover-up.
With an eye toward cleaning up the corruption that Burke had allowed to fester, Bellone then tapped Timothy Sini, at the time the deputy county executive for public safety and a former federal prosecutor, for the post. After Sini was elected district attorney, Bellone made a history-making selection in Geraldine Hart, a former FBI official and the first woman to head the department.
Bellone made another historic choice for his last pick: Harrison, a veteran NYPD chief and the first Black person to serve at the helm of the department.
Hit the ground running
Bellone, in an interview, said when he made each selection, he took into account the current landscape and “what are the key priorities and obviously who can execute on those.”
“What I’ve learned over the years is the community feels a real connection to the person in that role, so that piece of it is important,” said Bellone.
During a 10-minute conversation with a Newsday reporter, Bellone three different times mentioned Cameron, who twice served as acting commissioner under Bellone but was ultimately passed over for the top job, as someone who could “hit the ground running” as commissioner.
“He’s highly respected, including by me,” Bellone said.
While both Sini and Hart re-engaged the FBI in the long-dormant investigation into who killed the 10 people whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach, it was while Harrison was commissioner that authorities made a major breakthrough in the case.
This past July, with Harrison and Tierney leading a newly created Gilgo Beach Homicide Task Force, authorities arrested a suspect in three of the 10 killings. Rex A. Heuermann, a 60-year-old Manhattan architect who lives in Massapequa Park, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
Whoever becomes the next police commissioner will oversee the continuing investigation into Heuermann and the killings of the other victims.
Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a former police detective who retired after Burke forced him off a federal task force, said he's hopeful that Romaine will make a good choice.
"You're looking for a man of integrity and honor who's not going to kowtow to the police unions," said Trotta, expressing an apparent preference for a male to get the post. "You need someone who knows the contract and can negotiate the contract and can take away the perks the fat-cat union officials get and give that to the rank-and-file street cops."
With Vera Chinese