For today’s Daily Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Suffolk County, NY Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart. Commissioner Hart, who was hired to lead the agency in 2018 after more than 20 years with the FBI, discussed the transition from federal law enforcement to local policing, COVID-19, police reform, and recent developments in a local serial murder cold case.

Chuck Wexler: What has it been like to transition from the FBI to local policing?

Commissioner Hart:  I had 23 years in the FBI. I worked with the Suffolk County PD when I headed up the FBI’s Long Island office beginning in 2014. That was the beginning of the MS-13 violent activity in Suffolk County, some of which, such as the murder of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas as they walked home from school, was national news.

The gang task force was part of the FBI, and Suffolk County PD was part of that. I really got to know some of the leaders at the time, which was a big benefit for me. When the opportunity at Suffolk County PD came up, I felt like there was a team in place that I was familiar with and respected. It made for an easier transition.

Wexler: Tell us about the developments in the Gilgo Beach murders.

Commissioner Hart:  When I was with the FBI, Tim Sini came aboard as Suffolk County police commissioner. The former chief of department, James Burke, who ended up being arrested by the FBI, didn’t have any interest in a partnership with the Bureau, so the FBI had been excluded from the investigation for years. When Tim came on, he called me and the Bureau to invite us back into the case. So I had the benefit of familiarity with the case from my time with the FBI, and I hit the ground running with that case when I came over here.

And the scientific technology really exploded. Genetic genealogy, which was used in the Golden State Killer case, lined up with my arrival here.

We have a great team with the district attorney’s office, our homicide detectives, and the FBI all working together on this. We were able to move it forward. We identified a previously unidentified victim, and released some evidence that we hadn’t discuss before. It’s all in an effort to get the word out and move the case forward, because somebody out there knows something.

Wexler:  How has COVID-19 impacted your agency and community?

Commissioner Hart:  Back in January, we put out our first order on the importance of PPE. Then it really began to escalate.

We made sure we continued to connect with our community. We have a large Hispanic population, so we made sure we were out with signage and information in English and Spanish. The three things we talked about all the time were washing your hands, maintaining social distance, and wearing a face covering. We partnered with our superintendents to do robocalls in Spanish, and we did PSAs on radio stations.

Internally we were very cognizant of keeping our officers healthy and safe and making sure our patrol division stayed operational. I have to commend our chief of department, Stuart Cameron, who was a tremendous leader in this area and trained agencies throughout the county.  We took steps to keep our numbers low. We’re a department of 2,500, and we’ve only had 96 positive COVID cases. We’ve been able to keep our operations running smoothly.

It was a tough time, though. It was new to all of us. We had to do the balancing act of making sure we could respond to calls while keeping our officers safe.

Our bars and restaurants are now open at half capacity, and we partner with the State Police and state liquor authority to ensure compliance. The state liquor authority has a huge potential hammer for bars and restaurants, so that’s been very helpful for us.

Wexler:  Is it challenging to reach the undocumented community?

Commissioner Hart:  I did a lot of conference calls with our community-based and faith-based organizations, always trying to get the word out. Like many departments, we’re not interested in your immigration status. If you have not committed a crime, we want to make sure you’re getting the health services you need. So we relied heavily on our faith leaders in that area.

We had two classes in the academy at the time, and we graduated each one a week early and put them out on foot patrol. We postposed their field training, because we didn’t want to double up the cars. We put them on foot patrol in our downtown areas to hand out fliers in English and Spanish about the importance of social distancing and face coverings. Each class did that for about 6-8 weeks. They were interacting with the community and getting the message out.

Wexler:  Did you make any staffing changes?

Commissioner Hart:  We separated the double cars early on. And we split the squads physically. We also increased the number of crimes that could be reported online. Our facilities staff did a great job keeping things clean and sanitized, which was a huge piece of this too.

We asked our 9-1-1 operators to wear masks early on, before it was widely recommended.

Wexler:  Have you had demonstrations in Suffolk County in recent months?

Commissioner Hart:  We had about 235 protests out here in Suffolk. They began shortly after the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis. From the beginning we tried to make sure we showed our respect for First Amendment rights and were restrained in our response.

We didn’t have any property damage whatsoever. We did have some arrests, but not more than a dozen. In the beginning we allowed the protesters to utilize the roadways, but that became dangerous. We had a car drive through some protesters, and thankfully nobody was seriously hurt. So it was time to move protesters off the roads, and we had to decide the best way to do that. We could do disorderly conduct or trespass, but we wanted to find a way to do it without criminalizing it. We looked to the vehicle and traffic law, and we issued traffic tickets for pedestrians using the roadways. We thought that was a good way to start, and if people weren’t complying, we could always raise the penalty.

Meeting with protest leaders beforehand was really key. And afterwards, if they were willing, we’d have a “post-game” wrap-up after demonstrations about what our expectations were and how everything could go better next time.

The protests are continuing. We have a lot of Back the Blue rallies here, which is helpful for the morale of the department. but sometimes requires a lot of manpower because there will be a counterprotest.

Wexler:  How have you responded to local and national calls for police reform?

Commissioner Hart:  I think a lot of police leaders are facing similar challenges with getting information out about what their departments currently do and have in place. I say that we’re a department that embraces reform. Since 2014 we’ve been under a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice that emphasizes our relationship with our Latino communities. That’s something we’ve embraced, and we’ve moved forward tremendously. We’re almost at compliance. And we’ve had a consent decree since 1985 that we’ve largely moved forward on as well.

So I try to emphasize that we understand the need for reform, we embrace reform, and we’ve instituted reform. But I also acknowledge that, like every department around the nation, we understand that we can do better.

What’s unique in New York is the governor’s executive order, which basically mandates that every department sit down with community leaders and stakeholders to formulate a reform plan together. They will then present that to the legislature by April 1. We’re well under way with that. It’s a heavy, heavy lift for a huge county and big department. We have formulated our committee and begun the meetings, but there’s a lot of information to get out to the committee members. They all come at it from different levels of understanding of the police department, so we want to make sure everyone has basic knowledge of our structure, our workings, and the reforms we’ve instituted.

Wexler:  How have you been impacted by recent statewide measures on use of force?

Commissioner Hart:  The state legislation on use of force is really a reporting requirement. We had done that previously, but they codified that in legislation.

They banned chokeholds throughout the state, but we had done that previously.

They passed legislation to have the attorney general oversee any police-involved shooting or death. They will step in and take over the investigation. That had been in place by executive order, but they have made that permanent with legislation.

Wexler:  What is the best part of your job?

Commissioner Hart:  The best part is making myself available in the department and getting out there. During COVID it was challenging to personally interact with our officers, but it was more important than ever, given everything that was going on in 2020. I found ways to meet up with officers out on patrol while social distancing, to have conversations with them.

I started to send out an email every Friday. It started out with information about COVID, and it really stuck. People enjoy it, and I put it out on the MDT for our patrol folks. I’ll go through whatever is happening locally, and a lot of it is making sure they understand the community support they have. As we know, it’s been a difficult time for policing. But a majority of Suffolk County residents support their police officers, and I want to make sure they hear about the support I hear about.

Wexler: What’s the toughest part of your job?

Commissioner Hart:  That phone call during the night when an officer has been involved in something that rises to the level of a phone call. Your first thought is just to pray that no officer has been hurt.

Wexler:  How does being a local police chief differ from running an FBI office? For example, as a local police chief, is there added pressure to comment on cases?

Commissioner Hart: The community interaction and connectivity are completely different than at the Bureau. It’s good, and I enjoy it and realize the importance of it.

In the FBI, if you did comment, it was frowned upon. Here you have to be out there engaging, being transparent, and giving out information. You need to draw the line so that you’re giving out information while protecting an investigation. Those are lines you have to figure out, and it’s a huge difference from the FBI.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.