Celebrating “a historic moment,” the East End Voter Coalition yesterday welcomed Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. to the group’s 17th Annual MLK Day event yesterday at Riverhead Free Library.
Voter coalition members Robert “Bubbie” Brown and Larry Williams emceed the program, which included prayer, song, poetry, reflection on the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a talk by the new Suffolk County sheriff.
The soft-spoken and unassuming Toulon — “Please call me Errol, not Sheriff,” he told the audience of about 60 people in the library’s meeting room yesterday afternoon — talked about his life’s journey.
Born and raised in the South Bronx, one of two sons of a NYC correction officer and a school secretary, Toulon said his parents made sure their children got a good education. But he was not, he said, a “great student.”
“I was an average student,” he said. “I tell students I speak with, ‘You may not be at the top of your class now, but as lnog as you continue to push forward you’ll get to where you want to be,” he said.
After graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1980, Toulon earned an associate’s degree in 1982 and then followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a NYC correction officer at Riker’s Island.
He spoke yesterday about what it was like to be a young correction officer — often locking up other young men he had known in the community or at school. One was an honor student, at the top of his class at Cardinal Hayes, “headed for the Ivy League.” Instead, he ended up at Riker’s on a murder charge.
“I had to close the gate on him and talk to him between the bars,” Toulon recalled. “This was someone I sat next to in school —
probably in gym because I wasn’t in the honors classes.”
It impressed the young correction officer deeply. How does a young man like this end up in jail, charged with murder?
Toulon’s career as a uniformed officer — he attained the rank of captain — was cut short by pancreatic cancer in 2004. It was his second bout with cancer, following a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1996. But the pancreatic cancer “kind of put me down for the count,” he said, adding with a broad smile, “not permanently.”
Toulon said his illness left him “very depressed” and his therapy was going back to school. He earned a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree and was working on a second master’s when he decided to pursue a doctorate.
“My father had two master’s and I wanted to beat him out,” he said jokingly.
He went to Dowling College and earned a doctorate in education.
Toulon was tapped by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in 2012 as assistant deputy county executive for public safety. He supervised eight public-safety departments, including the Suffolk County Police Department, the Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency services, and the Medical Examiner’s Office.
In 2014 he returned to the NYC Correction Department as first deputy commissioner.
The Lake Grove resident, 55, was elected the 67th sheriff of Suffolk County on Nov. 7. He is the first African-American to hold the post and the first African-American to be elected to nonjudicial countywide office in Suffolk.
Toulon said an his goal is to emphasize community outreach to fight crime and break the cycle of repeat offenders. He plans to strengthen the re-entry task force.
“You and all the communities in Suffolk County are going to change the way our inmates go back home,” Toulon said. The sheriff said he is already working on a “resource map” for every town in Suffolk to provide information for inmates about community resources available
“I don’t think we’re doing enough as a society to help these men and women when they leave our custody,” Toulon said yesterday.
The sheriff’s department will work more effectively with other law enforcement agencies to combat gangs in Suffolk County, Toulon said.
“I’ve tasked our gang unit to look at things a lot differently as to how we gather intelligence so we can better assist our law enforcement partners, to make sure we will get them off the streets,” the sheriff said. “But we cannot do this without you,” he told the audience.
It starts in schools, with anti-bullying programs, Toulon said. He will be going out to talk to students. “I need to get out and talk to them, to learn what is going on,what is causing them to commit crimes,” he said.
“This is what we need to do. It won’t be by myself. I’m going to need everyone here,” Toulon told the audience.
The sheriff chatted with audience members after the program, as everyone in attendance was invited to enjoy a light meal.
The nonpartisan voter coalition, founded in 1999 by James “Butch” Langhorn and Antonio DeGrasse, aims to boost minority voter turnout by education and voter registration.
The annual MLK event is one of two presented by the Egroup, the other being a Juneteenth celebration each summer to commemorate the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas — two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti
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