NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Bill de Blasio, tasked this summer with reopening New York after the coronavirus devastated the city, has often summoned to his side the head of a small city law enforcement agency. Yet his former health commissioner was seen not once.
“You're going to see the sheriff and his team out there a lot around New York City,” the mayor told New Yorkers last week. “They're doing an extraordinary job.”
While Dr. Oxiris Barbot — who tendered her resignation three weeks ago after months of exclusion from the city’s Test & Trace program and the mayor’s daily press briefings — stood on the sidelines, New York City Sheriff Joseph Fucito has thrice appeared with the mayor.
What’s more, the career law enforcement officer has seen his responsibilities expand in recent months as tensions mounted between the mayor and his ex-Health commissioner and between the city and its police force.
Most New Yorkers envision small towns with dusty roads, hear a certain Eric Clapton song, or recall an old Disney Movie villain with a gold star on his chest when they think about a sheriff, if they ever do.
Yet nestled in the city's Department of Finance is a Sheriff’s office that carries out court business such as serving legal documents, collecting fines, seizing property and enforcing warrants.
“Flexibility is what we're going to be working with,” Fucito said of his checkpoint enforcement. “Because that's the model that we worked with for many years.”
Fucitio — whom NY1 repeatedly asked for the chance to interview — first joined the office in 1988 when he was 18 years old and was appointed sheriff by de Blasio in 2014.
The sheriff earned $213,000 in 2019 for overseeing his staff of about 150 deputies, auditors and investigators, a fraction of the 36,000 members of the New York City Police Department.
Since March, the New York City’s Sheriff office has played a key role enforcing state and city regulations surrounding COVID-19 and the stay-in-place order meant to curb its spread.
The Sheriff’s office has busted this month at least four illegal parties — two during one raucous night in Brooklyn — where deputy sheriffs found hundreds of people drinking and raving.
Deputy sheriffs have also held daily checkpoints — at the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, George Washington and Goethals bridges and the Staten Island Expressway, among other locations — stopping cars and quizzing drivers about recent travel.
Those who admit to travel in 30 restricted U.S. states and territories are asked to fill out the New York State Travelers Health Form and told they might face a $10,000 for violating a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
The city has yet to share the result of those checkpoints.
“The reality with the checkpoints is obviously very new, I want to emphasize that,” de Blasio said last week. “The work we're doing to reach travelers has been ramping up day by day.”
Most recently, de Blasio tasked the Sheriff’s office with enforcing his executive order mandating hotels receive Test & Trace data from guests before handing over the room key.
Those found not to be in compliance with a quarantine can be forcibly hospitalized under law Fucito said has been on the books for more than 100 years.
“Keeping New York infection rates low is one of the most critical public safety and health initiatives facing the city,” Fucito said. “And we must continue to do our part, to keep each other safe.”