Protestors kneel on Merrick Avenue in Merrick in June 2020. (Photo by Mira Lerner)

The Nassau County Legislature voted 12-6 in favor of a bill Monday night that would allow police officers to sue protesters for harassment or injury and make those individuals liable for up to $50,000 in civil fines, after five hours of public comment from a diverse showing of more than 40 constituents largely opposing the measure.

The bill, sponsored by Leg. Josh Lafazan (I-Syosset), amends Nassau’s human rights law, which since 2019 has included first responders as a “protected class.” The new legislation increases protections for law enforcement officers in light of recent nationwide protests against police brutality by increasing punitive measures for individuals who assault, harass or injure someone based on the fact that they are a police officer. The law applies to other first responders, such as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and firefighters, as well.

“It is the judgment of this legislature that the recent widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police has undermined the civil liberties of the community at large,” legislators wrote in the law, noting that about 700 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have been injured in protests since May 2020, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

During the hearing, two top police union officials briefly spoke in favor of the bill, followed by several dozen community members who expressed vehement opposition on the grounds that violent protests are not a problem in Nassau and the bill would strip residents of their First Amendment right to protest by instilling fear of being sued. Others directly targeted Lafazan and claimed the bill was part of a political agenda to get re-elected in November.

“I firmly support this legislation that will seek to protect the basic human rights of any first responder, making it fundamental that anyone who commits harassment, menacing, assault, or causing injury, as defined in the law, to that first responder shall be deemed an unlawful, discriminatory practice and they should be held accountable for those actions,” said Brian Sullivan, president of the Nassau County Sheriff Corrections Officers Benevolent Association. 

Opponents, however, argued the law is unconstitutional and unjustly places police officers on par with marginalized groups who are protected by human rights laws. Others argued it would only further erode community relations with police. Community activists, lawyers, social workers, a high schooler, and others, including several who pledged their support of law enforcement but disapproved of the bill, spoke at the podium.

“This would be a violation of the human rights law,” said David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network on Long Island. “I don’t know what attorney you have representing you, but you should fire them today.”

“We are not anti-police officer, but we are anti-police state,” said activist Emily Kaufman, who argued the bill would place excessive power in the hands of police.

“What you’ve created is a step back in time, a step back in history,” said Fred Brewington, a civil rights attorney and member of Long Island Advocates For Police Accountability.

After public comment and a brief recess, Lafazan reaffirmed his support for the bill, while Leg. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) announced he would withdraw his support and vote “no,” a decision he made before the hearing, he said, noting the bill is “fatally flawed.”

Leg Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) pleaded with her colleagues to vote “no.”

“They can hang up their uniform. I can’t hang up my Black skin,” Bynoe said. “It’s a personal affront. It’s not right. This [legislative] body made a mistake once. This is an opportunity to right a wrong.”

The vote passed nearly on party lines, with Lafazan and two other Democrats voting “yes.”

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran must sign the bill for it to be written into law. She issued a statement noting she will seek Attorney General Letitia James’ advice on the matter.

“I’m proud of the dedicated first responders who’ve made Nassau the safest county in America, and I will continue to stand against defunding the police,” Curran said. “My administration is committed to protecting the brave men and women of law enforcement who keep us safe.  

“There were many speakers today who questioned this legislation,” she continued. “Now that it has been passed by the legislature, I will be making an inquiry to the Attorney General’s Office to review and provide some advice.”

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