YAPHANK, NY — Rodney Harrison traveled 60 miles east from One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan to make history as the first Black police commissioner of Suffolk County.
A veteran crime fighter who’s done undercover narcotics investigations and worked on building community policing, Harrison is starting his third week on the job– hoping to inspire other men and women “who look like me.”
“Recruitment and diversity in this organization needs to get better,” Harrison, 52, told PIX11 News at his new office in Yaphank. “The number is 75 Black police officers in a department that has 2,500.”
But Harrison is looking at far more than issues of race as he takes on an important challenge after three decades in the NYPD, where he rose through the ranks from cadet to chief of department.
He’s inheriting one of the most famous, unsolved crime mysteries in the United States, a case that started at Gilgo Beach in 2010. The murderer still remains elusive, 11 years after the discovery of dead escort workers on Ocean Parkway, and is known as the Long Island Serial Killer, or LISK. Body parts of the earliest-known victims were found on the shores of Davis Park in Fire Island in 1996.
“I’m feeling confident that we’re getting closer to making an arrest,” Harrison told PIX11 News. “I will say there’s been a lot of turns in different directions,” he said of the case.
We met Harrison in the same building where James Burke used to call the shots as Suffolk County chief of department until his 2015 arrest for assaulting a burglary suspect. The suspect had stolen a bag of sex toys and porn tapes from Burke’s official police vehicle. Burke served about four years in prison. Commissioner Harrison said speculation tying Burke to the Gilgo case does a disservice to a complex investigation.
“I can reassure everybody that there’s no coverup in this case,” Harrison said.
When we asked the commissioner if a ring of people could be connected to the unsolved murders, he said “possibly, possibly.”
Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota also went to prison for helping to cover up Burke’s assault. Now, there’s a new DA in town, and Commissioner Harrison told PIX11 News he used to work on NYPD gang cases with that man, Ray Tierney, when Tierney was a Brooklyn prosecutor.]
“I think my partnership with Ray Tierney, as well as bringing the FBI on board, is going to bring closure to these incidents,” Harrison said of the serial murder case.
At least 10 victims have been tied to the killer or killers, although some believe the number of victims is 17 or higher.
Harrison and Tierney also know they have a gang problem in Suffolk County, with the ruthless MS-13 organization active in Brentwood and members of the Bloods operating in other areas. Harrison mentioned Wyandanch and Central Islip as places where they’d be tracking gang activity.
“We’re going to be coming after them with precision policing,” Harrison said, “coming after the right individuals.”
Harrison’s chief of staff is retired NYPD Lieutenant Gracia Herdsman, and one of his new deputy commissioners is Anthony Carter, who once supervised Harrison’s office at One Police Plaza.
Carter will be tasked with overseeing the Suffolk Police Reform Plan, which calls for officers to be fitted with body cameras.
“He’s going to be very instrumental in implementing the reform plan,” Commissioner Harrison said of Carter.
At present, only a few Suffolk County cops are wearing body cameras, as part of a pilot program.
Suffolk County has 10 towns and half of them have their own police departments, but Harrison’s department takes a lead role when major crimes like homicides happen. There are seven precincts in Suffolk that fall within Harrison’s jurisdiction.
“There will be executive accountability forums,” Commissioner Harrison said, “where we’ll be bringing in commanding officers, holding the executives accountable,” and seeing “what we can learn from each other.”
PIX11 News followed Harrison as he visited the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood for the first time, greeting a class of recruits and asking how many were former NYPD police officers.
A number of recruits raised their hands. Earlier, in the hallway, the Academy’s Commanding Officer, Deputy Inspector John Hanley, and Executive Officer, Captain Steven Rohde, said of ex-NYPD cops, “We ask them to be part of this team.
Harrison’s wife is a retired NYPD Lieutenant, and two of his three daughters are now NYPD police officers. The commissioner said he had some upsetting encounters with NYPD cops as a Black adolescent growing up in Jamaica, Queens. But he credits his father, a retired bus driver, for giving him an open mind about policing.
“My father was the one who who pushed me into law enforcement, so I’m very proud,” Harrison said.
The commissioner’s mother is a nurse.
Regarding the five-star shield that he now wears on his belt, Harrison added, “I’m very humbled to be a pioneer, to be the first, black Police Commissioner of this county.”
“It’s all about helping people, protecting people,” he said.