The pandemic crackdown by the New York City Sheriff’s Office raises the question: Is there a new sheriff in a town that barely knew it had one?
The answer: No, Sheriff Joseph Fucito is not a newcomer. He’s worn the badge for the past six years, serving until now in a civil law-enforcement role that hasn’t carried the notoriety of the sheriffs of Wild West folklore.
That changed when, thanks to an expanded role ordered by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Fucito emerged from obscurity as leader of a force that’s normally more focused on assignments like chasing cigarette tax scofflaws and carrying out eviction orders as a division of the city Department of Finance.
In recent months, the sheriff's office has been the primary New York City agency enforcing the rules set up to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Fucito’s force first stepped into the pandemic fray earlier this year while the New York City Police Department was busy grappling with massive street protests over the police killing of George Floyd and a spike in city shootings.
Since August, sheriff's deputies have shut down 41 illegal large-scale gatherings, including underground parties featuring DJs, alcohol and maskless revelers. They have also stopped more than 9,000 vehicles at bridge-and-tunnel entry points to check on travel origin and warn of quarantine regulations, passing out nearly 64,000 masks in the process.
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De Blasio has called the deputies working for Fucito "heroes" of the city’s outbreak response. Still, even the mayor concedes that before the pandemic, "people didn’t know a lot about the sheriff’s department."
Indeed, the sheriff’s office doesn’t carry the cachet of the NYPD, which has 36,000 officers and is omnipresent in the city. But it has an annual budget of about $40 million and a force of 150 officers who carry guns, drive marked patrol cars and can lock people up.
Fucito didn’t respond to multiple interview requests from The Associated Press. According to a city website, he was appointed to the post in 2014 after rising through the ranks since 1988, "when he became, at 18, the youngest deputy sheriff in the city’s history." His current top rank earns him $213,000 a year.
Fucito has occasionally appeared in his commanding officer uniform at the mayor’s press briefings — once offering an aside that there’s an archaic city law allowing authorities to hospitalize quarantine violators.
The sheriff's office has publicized its work on social media. A tweet late last month announced the shutdown of an "illegal bottle club" that hosted about 400 people in midtown Manhattan, resulting in "health and alcohol beverage control law" charges against the organizers.
The high noon moment for the sheriff’s office came earlier this month at Mac’s Public House on Staten Island, a conservative borough that has seen resistance to COVID-19 restrictions.
That night, deputies came to arrest a bar co-owner, Danny Presti, for allegedly serving patrons in defiance of city and state closure orders. They said Presti got into his car, struck a deputy and kept driving for about 100 yards (90 meters) with the deputy hanging onto the hood, resulting in fractures to both legs.
Presti, 34, was charged with third-degree assault, reckless driving, menacing and resisting arrest and was released without bail. His lawyer, Louis Gelormino, has denied the charges, suggesting that the sheriff's office being the agency to bust his client shows the case isn’t serious.
"In my mind, NYPD makes arrests in this city when it comes to criminality," Gelormino said. "They want no part of it. Neither do the state troopers."
A union for the deputies responded by saying that the officers had been put in the impossible position of having to enforce "ad-hoc" coronavirus protocols they understood were hurting businesses.
"But taking their anger and frustrations out on our members is completely unacceptable," the union said in a statement.
The sheriff’s work isn’t likely to end soon.
As virus cases have risen this autumn, the state has gradually tightened restrictions, requiring out-of-state travelers to get a coronavirus test or endure a lengthy quarantine, halting indoor dining at restaurants, ordering nonessential businesses in some hot spots to temporarily close, and limiting private gatherings to no more than 10 people.
There has been talk in recent weeks of even more restrictions in January if virus hospitalizations continue to rise.
If that happens, it will likely be the sheriff's office, not police, trying to get people to obey the rules. City officials have been reluctant to give the NYPD a bigger role after a series of violent encounters in late spring over minor infractions.
The sheriff's office has focused much of its efforts on the biggest violators, targeting speakeasies and businesses blatantly disregarding the law, rather than regular New Yorkers who might not be following the rules.
"Keeping New York infection rates low is one of the most critical public safety and health initiatives facing the city," Fucito said at a mayoral briefing. "And we must continue to do our part, to keep each other safe."