Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, the first woman to lead the 2,400-sworn-member department, said Wednesday she is stepping down in May after a 3-year tenure to take a job at Hofstra University.
Hart, 53, who took the helm of the Suffolk County Police Department in the aftermath of a series of corruption and police misconduct scandals and as it contended with a spate of MS-13 street violence and a deadly opioid epidemic, is set to leave her $175,288-salary job on May 7 to become Hofstra’s director of public safety.
What to know
- Hart, an FBI veteran and the first woman to lead the 2,400-member force, will step down in May after a 3-year-tenure.
- She will head Hofstra University’s Department of Public Safety.
- Chief of Department Stuart Cameron will serve as acting commissioner.
- The county will launch a nationwide search for Hart’s replacement.
"I wanted to leave this department better than when I got here," Hart said in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "I hope I have accomplished that."
Hart’s surprise announcement came as the department is poised to implement a number of reforms, including the eventual equipping of the patrol force with body cameras, a move that comes shortly after a group of Suffolk police officers were captured on an officer’s body camera allegedly assaulting a handcuffed car theft suspect in February in Mount Sinai.
"She led the department through the most difficult time in policing and also got police reform done," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Wednesday.
Hart said it was important for her to remain on the job until officials completed the police reform plan ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year following nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. That 1,000-page plan was approved by the Suffolk Legislature on March 30 and submitted to state officials.
"Her leadership in the reform process is what she will be remembered for," Bellone said.
Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, the highest-ranking uniformed officer, will serve as acting commissioner until a replacement is named, Bellone said. The county will launch a nationwide search for Hart’s replacement. Hart succeeded Timothy Sini, who left his post as police commissioner when he was elected district attorney.
Hart, a mother of two who lives in Nassau County, said her new job at Hofstra will allow her to spend more time with her family.
Tracey Edwards, NAACP Long Island director, served on Suffolk police reform advisory board: "On behalf of the NAACP, we wish Commissioner Hart well and thank her for her service."
Sini said Hart "has served the county and department well," citing reductions in crime and the diversification of the department as well as "working with the community to formulate a police reform plan."
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas called Hart "an exceptional police commissioner, a partner we often relied on and a trailblazing woman committed to strengthening our communities and keeping them safe."
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who knew Hart in her role in the FBI, said: "We became even closer after she became the police commissioner in Suffolk County as we worked together as partners. It's a tough loss for Suffolk County but a benefit to Hofstra University."
Suffolk PBA President Noel DiGerolamo said he understands Hart's decision. "I just wish we had more time with her," he said.
DiGerolamo said he and Hart had a "very, very good relationship" and that she "truly cares" about the officers, the department and the community. "She balanced that all beyond expectation," he said, adding "she will be hard to replace."
Suffolk Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said Hart's decision was "a bit of a shock."
Calarco said Hart's accomplishments include overseeing the county’s police reform plan, which included "substantial reforms," and conducting more outreach with the community.
"She’s spent the last 3 years just working through our police department and finding ways to bring that outsider's perspective -- having spent her career working in the FBI -- to the force and just kind of helping us see things in a different way, and improve the way that we were doing things," Calarco said.
Calarco also praised Cameron.
"We are in good hands with Chief Cameron stepping up and becoming the acting commissioner," Calarco said. "He's a true professional who understands the police department intimately and will certainly be able to hold down the fort while we do that search."
Before becoming Suffolk’s police commissioner, Hart spent more than 21 years with the FBI and served as the senior supervisory resident agent of the agency’s Long Island office, where she headed the Long Island Gang Task Force.
Bellone cited that experience in fighting the MS-13 street gang, which authorities have said killed at least 25 people on Long Island during a two-year period beginning in 2016.
While the number of fatal opioid overdoses decreased in 2019 — Hart’s first full year as police commissioner — they are projected to show an increase last year during the coronavirus pandemic. Crime overall has fallen to historic lows during Hart’s tenure, although last year saw an increase in the number of homicides, as well as an increase in the number of motor vehicle thefts.
Hart, who was initially camera-shy when she stepped into the top-cop role, also helped re-energize the long-dormant Gilgo Beach serial killer case, which had been hobbled by decisions by 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 and until now had only been known as "Jane Doe No. 6, " a major development in the unsolved case.
"That was important to move the case forward," Hart said, "but it was also important for her family, for her son, to know what had happened."
Hart pushed successfully for the department to work with the FBI to use cutting-edge DNA technique called genetic genealogy analysis to identify the woman, Valerie Mack.
Hart also released images of a belt found at one of the crime scenes and believed to have been handled by the suspect, and created a website to gather tips from the public. No arrests have been made so far.
Hart was initially hesitant to embrace her place in history but said later she realized she was an inspiration to women in law enforcement.
Hart also continued Sini’s efforts to improve relations with Suffolk’s Latino community, which had accused police of acting indifferently toward crimes against Latino 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.
"She was the perfect choice to follow Tim Sini and continue the reforms," Bellone said. "That progress might have stopped if we didn’t have the right person as commissioner."
Civil rights and social justice activists who advised the county as it developed its police reform plan submitted to the state earlier this month have criticized the proposal as inadequate, and they have called for an independent review board to monitor Suffolk police. But many of those same activists also said Hart sincerely wanted to hear what they said and valued their input.
Hart said she has tried to preach a message of accountability during her tenure as commissioner.
"We say we should take care of each other as members of the police family, but that doesn’t mean the blue wall," Hart said. "The good officers in this department — the vast majority of officers — do not want bad officers besmirching their good name."
With Rachelle Blidner