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Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart leaves job after 3-year-tenure

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart reflected on

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart reflected on her role as the first woman to head the department as she leaves the force after three years on the job. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, the first woman to lead the 2,400-officer department, walked out of her 3-year-post Friday following a ceremony at police headquarters in Yaphank.

The top cop, who spent the past week packing boxes and offering farewells to members of the department she's led since 2018, told Newsday the most memorable moments of her tenure include leading the department in the aftermath of a series of corruption scandals, comforting the families of homicide victims and breaking new ground on high-profile investigations including the Gilgo killings case.

Hart also led the department as it contended with MS-13 street violence, a deadly opioid epidemic and the global coronavirus pandemic.

What to know

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, an FBI veteran and the first woman to lead the 2,400-member force, stepped down Friday after a three-year-tenure.

She will head Hofstra University’s Department of Public Safety.

Chief of Department Stuart Cameron will serve as acting commissioner.

The county has launched a nationwide search for Hart’s replacement.

She exited the department headquarters for the final time Friday with her son CJ to applause from officers and agency brass. Hart accepted flowers and plaques from law enforcement officials and gave her parents, John and Patricia, a tight embrace.

"I can’t tell you how much you all mean to me," Hart told the crowd before exiting to a waiting car. "I say there’s no crying in policing. I will not do that. But you will be in my heart and my prayers always. And I just want you to take care of yourself. I love you."

Retired NYPD Sgt. John Hart of Northport said he was proud of his daughter and her accomplishments.

"She works hard and deserves everything she gets," he said. " … She always does the best."

Bonnie Raber, a sergeant in the department’s community relations bureau, said it was inspiring having a female commissioner.

"Not only was she an amazing commissioner but she was an amazing example of any law enforcement leader, female or non-female," Raber said. " … She’s an inspiration not only to me but to so many young officers in the recruitment process right now."

Hart is leaving at a time when Long Island — and rest of the nation — continue to wrestle with the role of law enforcement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis last year.

"That is an important conversation and I don’t want to diminish it," said Hart, 53, who is leaving her $175,000 yearly salary to become Hofstra University’s director of public safety. "But it is important to remember all that is good in policing."

She also leaves the department as it is poised to implement a number of reforms, including expanded use of body cameras, deployment of mental health and substance abuse experts to some 911 calls and designation of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission to review and report on police misconduct. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered departments across the state to review policing practices and develop policies to eliminate racial bias after Floyd’s death.

While some members of the advisory panel that helped draw up the reforms contend it did not go far enough, they recognized Hart’s efforts to hear their concerns.

"We really wanted to hear from people, and this is a lesson I will carry forward," Hart said. "People deserve to be heard."

Serena Liguori, director of New Hour, a social services agency that works with incarcerated women in Suffolk, said she'll miss Hart.

"She has been vigilant about attending every meeting and listening to everyone, even if they were saying something she didn’t agree with," said Liguori, a member of the Suffolk police reform task force. "She’s a forward thinker and this is a loss for the department."

Legis. Robert Trotta, a former Suffolk police officer and frequent critic of the department’s administration, said he thinks Hart left because of recent allegations the department is facing of promotional exam cheating and police union spending.

"She did the best she could given the fact she was given little control of the continuing corruption scandals," said Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). "Given her integrity, I understand completely why she’s leaving."

Supporters say one of Hart’s biggest achievement was the new energy brought to the Gilgo Beach murders investigation, which had been hobbled by decisions from a prior administration to exclude the FBI from involvement, and from infighting between law enforcement agencies.

Hart announced last year that the department had positively identified a woman whose remains were found on Gilgo Beach in 2011 and in Manorville in 2000, a major development in 10-year-old unsolved case.

Hart, who spent 21 years with the FBI and led the Long Island Gang Task Force, pushed the department to work with the FBI to use a cutting-edge DNA technique called genetic genealogy analysis to identify the woman, Valerie Mack.

"It was important to be more transparent with the evidence, including scientific technology," she said.

Hart released images of a belt found at one crime scene and believed to have been handled by the suspect, and created a website to gather tips from the public. No arrests have been made.

"Commissioner Hart has led the department with integrity, skill, grace and we are incredibly grateful," County Executive Steve Bellone said Friday during a ceremony in Yaphank honoring fallen officers.

Hart was initially reluctant to play up her role as a pioneer who shattered a glass ceiling, but later embraced it to encourage other women to work in law enforcement. But she conceded Friday that it was difficult to overcome stereotypes about women in law enforcement.

"I hope here that I have been some sort of role model for young women so that it becomes more common for them to be in this position," Hart said.

Chief of Department Stuart Cameron will serve as acting commissioner as the county conducts a nationwide search for Hart’s replacement.

Hart said she also continued efforts to improve relations with Suffolk’s Latino community, which had accused police of acting indifferently toward crimes against Hispanic residents even after a group of teenagers killed Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue in 2008. The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into those allegations and entered an agreement in 2014 with Suffolk police to reform policing.

Hart said those efforts, along with the reform plan developed in the past year, will make Suffolk a model for the nation.

"We have held people accountable and we have developed best practices," Hart said. "We have become a major player."

With Nicole Fuller

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