The bill — which was passed with 12 votes in favor, 6 opposed and one absent — will allow police officers and other first responders to seek and collect financial and punitive damages, with civil penalties of $25,000 to the “aggrieved” first responder and up to $50,000 in the case the violations happened during a riot, according to the bill.
The law prompted sharp criticism among civil rights groups and community organizations, including the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which claimed the bill sets a “dangerous” precedent that threatens free speech and provides more protections for police forces and reduces their accountability.
In 2019, the Nassau County Legislature gave first responders protected status under its Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination against them.
The new law filed in June and authored by Nassau County Legislator Joshua A. Lafazan proposed expanding the local human rights law by allowing the county to sue on behalf of police officers for discrimination if they are harassed, menaced or injured.
The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic legislators Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, Arnold W. Drucker and Ellen Birnbaum, cited a “widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation” against the police since the protests over the killing of Floyd, although the protests were largely peaceful.
“There is no justification for violence against first responders. And these bills will add further protections in law to protect Nassau County’s first responders, as they protect us,” Lafazan said in a statement to The Washington Post.
“Our collective safety remains in jeopardy so long as those who are sworn to protect us aren’t protected themselves,” he said, adding the “staggering” number of violent incidents against police officers justify the enhanced protections offered in the bill such as attorneys fees, county attorney enforcement and civil penalties.
During a legislature hearing Monday, Legislator Siela Bynoe expressed her opposition to the bill and voted against it, echoing concerns of civil rights groups and activists, that “its broad range of proposed offenses against officers could have a chilling effect on peaceful protests and the exercise of free speech.”
Bynoe described the bill as a “dangerous” initiative that could also deter people from denouncing or documenting police abuses out of fear of facing a civil suit and instead allowing them to go unpunished.
“Human rights laws are designed to protect people who have been historically discriminated against because of unchangeable personal characteristics such as the color of their skin,” Bynoe said, adding that people in certain professions such as police officers should not have these kind of protections “because they can hang up their uniforms, I can’t hang up my Black skin.”
Lafazan rebutted criticism that the bill targets a specific group of people based on ideology or race as “outrageous,” claiming that by protecting first responders, the bill “helps guarantee every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of speech without violence or intimidation.”
He added that peaceful protesters would not be affected by this bill, “just as they have not been deterred by existing laws allowing first responders to sue for negligence and intentional acts.”
A number of speakers, including community activists and residents, took the stand Monday during the open legislature hearing that lasted more than six hours, and expressed their firm rejection to the bill.
David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network, described the initiative as “a slap in the face to those who have to face discrimination or threats day in and day out our entire lives.”
“This is a slap in the face to women, people of color, LGBT,” he said during the legislature meeting.
Dan Oppenheimer, a Nassau resident, argued the bill would suppress legitimate demonstrations, and urged local officials to instead funnel funds to address mental health issues and work-related stress that officers face.
Emily Kaufman, from LI United to Transform Policing & Community Safety, accused Lafazan of pushing the initiative for political calculation as he sought reelection.
“This bill is a clear act of retaliation against Black Lives Matter,” said civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington. “This is trying to shut down and dampen and chill the voices of those who would dissent and raise their voices against abuse by police.”
Police officers associations and police union leaders defended the initiative.
“Doesn’t law enforcement deserve the same human rights respect and dignity that everyone they are sworn to protect does?” said Brian Sullivan, president of the Nassau County Correction Officers Benevolent Association.
“I, for one, do not go to work every day thinking this is the day I’m going to get assaulted, bit, punched, stabbed, and, oh well, that’s just part of my job,” Sullivan added.
In a surprising turn, by the end of the hours-long hearing late Monday night, legislator Drucker, who co-sponsored the bill, said after careful consideration, he concluded the “bill is fatally flawed” and announced he would withdraw his support for the bill and voted against it.