Nassau County lawmakers approved legislation late on Monday that gives the county attorney and the police commissioner the ability to sue ordinary citizens who harass police and other first responders.
The proposal ignited a firestorm of controversy from a coalition of historically marginalized groups who say being a member of the policing profession is not the same as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or ability.
The bill now allows the police commissioner and county attorney to file suit under the county’s human rights law against anyone who assaults, menaces, or harasses a first responder for as much as $50,000. That’s separate from any potential civil jury awards. The bill borrows language from the New York State penal law, which defines harassment as to “alarm or seriously annoy” a person.
During a public hearing, opponents said the legislation is designed to retaliate against anyone who criticizes the police and is an insult to people who are frequently discriminated against by the police and others.
“You want to bankrupt somebody and shut them down. That’s one way of doing it,” said Fredrick Brewington, a civil rights lawyer. “People are going to be afraid to speak their mind.”
The bill also says that if the first responder is in uniform, there is “irrebuttable presumption” that that person was targeted because of their profession. This goes beyond the threshold of hate crimes statutes, which require proof of intent.
Opponents also argued that the law will give police and other first responders more latitude to sue for discrimination than is afforded transgender people who are not included in the county’s human rights laws.
The legislation was initially proposed by members of the Democrats’ caucus. After facing criticism, they tried to table the bill. Republicans prevented this. Nassau’s politically powerful police unions supported the bill saying they shouldn’t face discrimination or harassment because of their profession.
Legislator Joshua Lafazan, the bill’s sponsor, faced withering criticism from civil rights groups who said he was bowing to unions during an election year. But, he defended his proposal saying it merely adds a civil component to current criminal laws.
“The crimes of menacing and harassment have been on the books for a long time yet we have not seen them used to suppress freedom of speech like the critics of this bill alledge,” he said.
In a statement, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she will seek the advice of the New York Attorney General Letitia James.