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A proposed amendment to Suffolk County’s human rights law that would make discrimination against law enforcement unlawful was attacked as unconstitutional and unnecessary during a public hearing of the County Legislature on Thursday. 

Introduced by Legislators James Mazzarella and Kevin McCaffrey, the amendment is in reaction to what they said is an increase in verbal and physical assault on public safety officers in the past two years. The amendment also affords the protections to peace officers, emergency medical services personnel and volunteer firefighters, and prohibits the release of personal information with the intent to expose someone to harassment.

Mazzarella and McCaffrey did not respond to RiverheadLOCAL’s request for comment on whether any data or studies were used to determine if Suffolk County public safety workers are facing increased levels of harassment.

A similar bill in Nassau County was vetoed by County Executive Laura Curran after an opinion from Attorney General Letitia James said the law would “inhibit residents’ rights to free speech and protest.” 

County Executive Steve Bellone has signaled that he would follow in Curran’s steps and veto the legislation if it is brought to his desk for signature.

“The NYS Attorney General has indicated that there are significant concerns about the constitutionality of this legislation. I agree. We need to protect the safety and privacy of our law enforcement personnel, but this bill is not the answer,” Bellone said in a statement.

Human rights law protects people based on race, gender and sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status and income from acts of bias and discrimination, and can result in a lawsuit for damages and relief if violated. The law specifically protects one current or past profession: military personnel. The law also prevents discrimination based on a lawful employment, which would already protect people based on their occupation.

Dozens of people, including members of organizations such as the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Suffolk County Democratic Socialists of America, the Long Island Social Justice Network, the Suffolk County Hispanic Advisory Board, the Long Island Progressive Coalition and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke against the amendment in a two hour long testimony.

“These laws are misguided and counterproductive, as they are often unconstitutional, undermine police community relations, and do not need to improve first responder safety, and lastly, make a mockery of actual civil rights laws, which protect historically marginalized communities,” said Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.  

Opponents argued that adding professions to the human rights law would diminish the law’s purpose: to protect minorities and other vulnerable populations. Opponents also argued that officers had qualified immunity and other protections to prevent their arrest to defend themselves if any physical altercations occur.

Darlene McDay, an activist who leads protests against qualified immunity, talked about her son, Dante Taylor, whose alleged abuse by corrections officers resulted in his suicide. Taylor was serving a life sentence for rape and murder, according to the New York Daily News. McDay has a federal lawsuit against Wende Correctional Facility, where Taylor was held. She illeged on Thursday the county’s law enforcement was corrupt.

“Police are protected not only as citizens, but they’re protected by other rights,” McDay said. “They enjoy qualified immunity, which should not exist. And to just sit there and say that someone like me, who needs to protest, who needs to tell people what is going on, could then be sued by a police officer whose feelings are hurt during a protest is absolutely ridiculous.”

McDay and other citizens vowed to vote against any legislators who supported the amendment.

Opponents also accused legislators of introducing the amendment because of the influence of public safety organizations and unions on campaign contributions. According to the New York State Board of Elections July periodic reports, Mazzarella received $2,150, and McCaffrey $5,372.75, from law enforcement and corrections officer organizations and political action committees this year. 

“People are oppressed because of the color of their skin or their gender or because of who they love. You can’t just hang up a uniform and step out of those identities,” said Lynn Kaufman of the Long Island Network for Change. “Police officers and first responders have an occupation, not an oppressed identity. It is ludicrous to believe that they are an oppressed class, when in any situation with the public, they are the authority.”

Ian Wilder, the executive director of Long Island Housing Services, an organization who focuses on fair housing, said that there has never been a claim of discrimination from a law enforcement officer or emergancy worker in the agency. He explained that because the protection based on lawful employment already exists, the addition of public service workers to the law would create a “super-protected class” and remove the law’s neutrality.

“I would ask, considering that police officers are already protected under human rights law here and under criminal law, as this resolution already states that there is no need to pass this law. It should be voted down,” Wilder said.

Two people, on behalf of public safety worker organizations, spoke in favor of the amendment. 

William Faller, the vice president of the Suffolk County Corrections Officers Association, said the addition of public safety workers does not diminish the protections of other protected classes under the human rights law.

“No one should be subject to threats, harassment, or physical harm because of the job that they perform, or the uniform that they wear,” Faller said. “Adding these protections to the county human rights law shows that our government stands with our public and our public safety personnel.”

Louis Savillo, the second vice president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, told the story of an officer who was harassed and had his personal information put out online.

“This is not about affecting people’s right to hold police officers accountable,” Savillo said. “We’re not asking you to stop people from being able to identify police officers, we have to give out our names now, not just our badge numbers, our business cards. We’re asking you to protect our families.”

Another bill, proposed by Legislator Susan Berland, which also had a public hearing Thursday, would make it unlawful to release private contact and address information of a public safety worker with a malicious purpose, a practice also known as “doxing.” Opponents said that because of its exclusivity to public safety workers, the bill had bad intentions. If it is being considered, it should apply to everybody, they said. Legislators seemed receptive to changing that law and getting the public’s input.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.