Contest for Suffolk Sheriff Draws Plenty of Attention

Errol Toulon Jr. is first black countywide candidate
Errol Toulon Jr., left, and Lawrence M. Zacarese.

Without doubt, Suffolk County will have a new sheriff regardless of the outcome of November’s election. Lawrence M. Zacarese, an assistant chief of the Stony Brook University police, and Errol Toulon Jr., a former New York City deputy corrections commissioner, are vying for the position in what has shaped up to be one of the most lively county races of the year.

Mr. Toulon is the first African-American to be nominated for sheriff or any other major county office, such as executive, clerk, or district attorney. (DuWayne Gregory became the first person of color to be elected as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature in 2014.)

After receiving Reform Party endorsement in June, Mr. Zacarese won a Republican primary in September against Phil Boyle, a New York State senator. Despite having no law enforcement experience, Mr. Boyle had received nominations from the G.O.P., Conservative, and Independence Parties, and was expected to get the Democratic nod as well. Dan Caroleo, the Democrats’ original candidate for sheriff, dropped out in June, and Stuart Besen, a former Huntington Town Board member, had been considered as a place holder for Mr. Boyle going into the primary.

In Newsday’s endorsement of Mr. Zacarese last week, the editorial board said, “Everything people hate about politics in general, and Suffolk County politics in all its dirty particulars, was wrapped up in last month’s Republican primary for county sheriff.” 

Mr. Toulon jumped into the race as a Democrat after the primary.

In recent years, the sheriff’s office was involved in a federal investigation into political corruption in Suffolk that led to the conviction of Edward Walsh, the former corrections lieutenant under the outgoing sheriff, Vincent DeMarco. 

Mr. Walsh had also been the leader of the Suffolk Conservative Party and a minority party is usually highly influential in county politics and elections. He was convicted in 2016 on federal charges of wire fraud and theft of government services, after spending time on politics, golfing, and gambling while saying he was at work in the sheriff’s office. 

Following September’s primary, Suffolk Democrats ditched Mr. Boyle and nominated Mr. Toulon, 55, of Lake Grove. Mr. Toulon also received the backing of the Conservative and Independence Parties. And Mr. Boyle will appear on the Independence Party line as a judicial candidate for State Supreme Court.

“No disrespect to Senator Boyle, but he was selected as a backroom deal . . . and it didn’t sit well with voters,” Mr. Zacarese said in an interview this week. “No disrespect to Errol, but he was their fourth candidate.” Mr. Zacarese said the sheriff’s position was too important, affecting “people’s general sense of safety, to have a candidate just show up 30 days before an election.” 

The Suffolk sheriff is responsible for running and maintaining county jails — a maximum-security facility in Riverside and a medium-security facility in Yaphank. Both candidates said their job should not end with the custody of inmates, but should include implementing programs to help them successfully transition when they are released. 

Gang violence, including the rise in violent crime connected to MS-13 in western Suffolk and the opioid epidemic have direct ties to the inmate population. Despite seeing less of it on the South Fork, both candidates agree residents here must not turn a blind eye to the epidemic. “The gang and the drug problem is Zipcode agnostic,” Mr. Zacarese said.

While drug users are behind bars, the sheriff’s office needs to find a way to help them through treatment. Not to do so “would be doing the community a disservice,” Mr. Zacarese said. “They will make their way back into the correctional system.”  

Mr. Toulon has attacked Mr. Zacarese’s lack of corrections experience, while Mr. Zacarese said Mr. Toulon was part of the problem when he worked at the Riker’s Island correctional facility. “Putting politics aside, running a jail, running for sheriff’s office, is something that should be run by someone that is qualified and not someone that is going to need on-the-job training,” Mr. Toulon said. 

Mr. Zacarese, 42, a lifelong Long Islander who lives in Kings Park, worked for the New York City Police Department for 11 years, rising to the rank of sergeant and working with in emergency services and street narcotics enforcement. He is a former firefighter and certified paramedic. In 2009, he joined the Stony Brook University police department and while in that job earned a law adegree. He also is director of the county office of emergency management.

Mr. Zacarese defended his experience, drawing a parallel to being in charge of the safety and health of 50,000 people at Stony Brook, the region’s largest university and medical center, to the care and custody of inmates at another large institution. “It’s not just about putting people behind bars. Broad-based experience” is also necessary, he said.

The sheriff’s office handles landlord-tenant disputes and eviction and oversees the pistol-permit process for residents of the five East End towns. The sheriff works closely with law enforcement agencies on the local and federal levels, and also works with the community on gang resistance, bullying awareness, and distracted driving programs, among others. 

Mr. Toulon said his experience “makes me more than qualified to walk in on day one and really start to transform the office.” He served two stints with the New York City Department of Correction, the first 22 years as a corrections officer, retiring as captain, and the last three years as deputy commissioner of operations before resigning in January. In between those posts, he served as assistant deputy county executive under Steve Bellone, working on public safety. 

He said jail is different than prison — people are there for shorter terms, either while awaiting trial or on year sentences. Riker’s, while larger, is similar to Suffolk County jail in that respect, he said. 

Mr. Toulon has ideas about creating a resource map for those leaving jail so that they know how to get mental health, housing, and employment help. “We want to ensure they have an opportunity to live a normal and productive life. The last thing we want is someone falling back into that addiction. We want to ensure those people aren’t a risk to the community.” 

He also wants to work with the courts on an ankle-bracelet system for low-level offenders and an expediter program through which offenders with low bails could be released. When it comes to staff, he wants to ensure they get consistent training annually to keep up with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid, and firearms training. 

Mr. Toulon has a master’s in business administration and a doctorate from Dowling College. He has taken leadership courses at Harvard and has a post-graduate certificate in homeland security management. He ran for office twice before, losing to John Kennedy for county legislator in 2009 and two years later dropping out of a race against State Sen. John Flanagan. 

“The sheriff is one of the most important and the least known law-enforcement agencies in Suffolk County,” Mr. Zacarese said.