You are reading

Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon: A Law Enforcement Innovator

Aug. 8, 2023 By Marc Horowitz

Though Suffolk County Sheriff is an elected office, a sizable chunk of the county’s 1.5 million residents probably couldn’t tell you exactly what Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. does when he reports to work in the morning.

And even fewer locals are likely to know that the sheriff’s office can trace its roots back a full 340 years.

“The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office was created in 1683,” says Toulon, who is currently serving his second four-year term as its top cop. “We were here before America was America.”

A deputy sheriff will rarely be the one to pull you over for speeding on Route 27. The sheriff’s office doesn’t answer 911 emergency calls other than those made to Suffolk County buildings or Francis S. Gabreski Airport. If a local home or business is burglarized, it’s very unlikely that a sheriff’s car will come out for the initial investigation.

But when Gilgo Beach Serial Killer suspect Rex Heuermann was charged with multiple murders and taken into custody on July 13, he was held at the Riverside-based Suffolk County Correctional Facility, which is operated by the Corrections Division of the Sheriff’s Office. And Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney credited Toulon with his assistance in the investigation that led to the arrest.

In addition to managing Suffolk County’s jails, Toulon’s office performs a variety of law enforcement and community services. These include comparatively mundane yet vital tasks like firearm licensing on the East End. (If you registered a pistol in Riverhead, Montauk or any of the villages, hamlets or towns in between, you dealt directly with the Sheriff’s Office.)

While its firearm licensing function is restricted to the five towns of the East End, the sheriff’s office is actually the only law enforcement agency in the county with specific jurisdictional responsibilities across all 10 Suffolk towns. As the enforcement arm of the civil courts in all of Suffolk, the Sheriff’s office helps execute arrest warrants and enforce legal judgements, including property seizure, income and wage garnishments, protection orders, landlord-tenant disputes and a variety of other court orders.

The sheriff’s office also plays an active role in community outreach and crime prevention. While it initiates its own investigations and enforcement actions, it also functions as a support mechanism for local police departments.

“I think East End residents and everyone in Suffolk County should know that we partner with their local law enforcement agencies,” Toulon explains. “They’ll reach out to us for assistance — whether it’s crowd control at a parade or some kind of criminality that’s occurring — and we have specialized units to assist them. We may not be the ones making the arrest or landing on the cover of the newspaper, but we function as a part of their local police departments.”

As an irreplaceable component of the Suffolk law enforcement community, the sheriff’s office has a wide and varied mandate. But when you speak to Sheriff Toulon, it’s clear that he spends a sizable chunk of his professional time and resources focused on the corrections aspect of his job.

Toulon, who received a Doctorate in Educational Administration from Dowling College in 2011, is a former New York City Corrections officer whose father was also a high-ranking official in the city’s corrections system, Toulon is deeply engaged with the law enforcement and crime prevention aspects of incarceration. He’s also obviously passionate about protecting inmate’s rights and helping to develop leading edge rehabilitation strategies to reduce recidivism.

“My father was a warden on Rikers Island, and when I asked him what he did for a living, he said, ‘we rehabilitate men and women who are in jail,’” Toulon recounts. “And that has resonated with me throughout my career. We’re helping men and women who are incarcerated prepare to re-enter society. In fact, 85% of the people in our custody (in Riverhead or Yaphank) ultimately return back to our local communities.”

S.T.A.R.T (The Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry Team), is one of Toulon’s signature rehabilitation programs, which he credits with helping to dramatically cut recidivism at the Riverhead and Yaphank Correctional Facilities.

“The national average for recidivism (inmates being incarcerated more than once) is about 60%,” Toulon says. “In New York State, it’s about 40%. At our two facilities, the recidivism rate is currently at 17% to 23%.”

Established approximately two years into Toulon’s first term as Sheriff, the S.T.A.R.T program uses trained Correctional Counselors to interview inmates within a few days of when they arrive at the facility, assessing their needs both while incarcerated and after they have served their sentences. The goal is to establish a discharge plan that allows for a successful re-entry into the community.

“We want to see where they are in their life, what needs they have and where they want to be when they get out,” Toulon explains. “We work to connect them with various service providers. Let’s say you’re in my Yaphank facility and you’re planning to live in Babylon when you get out. You may not know what resources are available in Babylon to assist you. So we help connect you to the resources in your area.”

Referrals are tailored to the individual inmate and might include substance abuse treatment, education assistance, job placement services, housing opportunities or help navigating the sometimes labyrinthine paperwork requirements of the Department of Social Services. Toulon points out that even help with basics like transportation, food, clothing and personal hygiene products can be invaluable in the first days after an inmate is released.

While rehabilitation has been and will continue to be a major focus of Toulon’s tenure, the sheriff is also garnering a reputation as an innovator on the law enforcement and crime prevention side of the ledger.

Toulon notes that many crimes and would-be crimes in Suffolk County — human trafficking, gang-related activities and domestic violence, for example — can be either solved or preempted by effective monitoring of the inmate population behind the walls of his correctional facilities.

“The East End Police Departments and the Suffolk County Police Department are all making arrests,” he says. “But if a person is going to be incarcerated, they’re remanded to the Office of the Sheriff.

“When they make arrests, police departments only hold [suspects] for a few hours. There’s only so much intelligence they can gather in the station house before they’re transferred to court for arraignment,” Toulon continues. “When inmates are in our custody, we’re able to sift through information, gather intelligence and work through so many things, not only to stop contraband from coming into our jails, but more importantly, to stop criminal acts from occurring in the community.

“For example, our human trafficking unit interviews every female inmate that comes into our jails. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re victims of human trafficking because they’ve been part of this for such a long time,” the Sheriff notes. “But once they start to have confidence and speak to my staff, we start to learn who the traffickers are, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Then we work with local police agencies and the district attorney’s office to go after them.”

As Suffolk’s 67th Sheriff and the county’s first African American to be elected to a non-judicial countywide office, Sheriff Toulon said he fully intends to run for a third four-year term in 2025.

“I think that there’s a lot of work that I haven’t finished,” he says. “I’m still very passionate and energetic. I’m very fortunate to hold this position and I do not take it for granted.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that deputy sheriffs can pull drivers over for speeding.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Recent News

FDNY prevents disaster in East Elmhurst by seizing 68 illegally stored propane tanks

For the second time in four months, FDNY fire inspectors averted a potential catastrophe in East Elmhurst after finding stockpiles of illegally stored propane tanks in the residential neighborhood.

Fire inspectors from the Special Investigation Unit received a complaint of illegal occupancy at a home just south of LaGuardia Airport at 23-57 89th St. They discovered 68 propane cylinders, which they seized along with five food trucks and a box truck parked on the property last week. The inspectors also found illegal single-room-occupancy in the home’s cellar.