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Bill That Gives Police Ability To Sue ‘Harassers’ Passes In Nassau County

Law enforcement stops a driver.
Rich Pedroncelli

Nassau County lawmakers approved legislation on Monday that gives sweeping ability to sue those who harass police and other first responders. The proposal ignited a firestorm of controversy from a coalition of historically discriminated-against groups who say the police profession is not the same as race, gender, age, sexual orientation or ability.

The bill said anyone who assaults, menaces or harasses a first responder can be penalized up to $50,000, plus potential civil jury awards. It borrow’s language from New York penal law, which defines harassment as to “alarm or seriously annoy” a person.

“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.”

During a public hearing, opponents said the legislation was designed to retaliate against anyone who criticizes police and was an insult to people who are frequently discriminated against.

The bill also said 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 crime statutes, which requires proof of intent.

It gives police more latitude to sue for discrimination than afforded to transgender people who are not included in the county’s human rights laws.

The legislation was initially proposed by members of the Democrat’s 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 because of their profession.

Legislator Joshua Lafazan, the bill’s author, faced withering criticism from civil rights groups who said he was bowing to unions during an election year. 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. She said she continues to “stand against defunding the police.”

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.