If you live, work, visit or otherwise stumble into Nassau County, this column is for you
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran last week punted on a measure that would let the county sue on behalf of police and first responders for something Nassau's newest update of its human rights ordinance does not adequately define.
It was billed as a protective measure for police.
What it would do is tie the potential for legal action to every single interaction between Nassau police and other emergency responders and the public.
Things could get tricky, and fast.
It could get expensive for the county, which would handle the actions.
And potentially expensive for any civilian who managed to rub an "ELO" — shorthand for emergency law officer, as defined by the measure — the wrong way.
The measure, which passed the legislature last week, would expand on an amendment made to Nassau's Human Rights Law in 2019, when county law enforcement officers and first responders gained "protected status" under the statute.
Before that revision, the law covered race, creed, color, gender, disability, age, source of income, veterans' status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, familial status, marital status and natural origin. Afterward, "first responder status" joined the group.
Last Monday, lawmakers pushed the 2019 expansion even further, authorizing the county attorney to seek civil damages on behalf of first responders.
As it is, interfering with a first responder, under criminal law, is illegal.
With this proposal, it would become a civil matter as well.
"New York law prudently provides for more serious charges when an offense is committed against a police officer or first responder who put their lives and health on the line," Joyce Smith, Nassau's acting district attorney, said in a statement to Newsday.
"While we appreciate the laudable goals of the bill’s sponsors," Smith continued, "we have serious concerns regarding the constitutionality and practical operation of this proposed county legislation."
"Even before a decision is made about a civil suit, you're forced to hire a lawyer," Susan Gottehrer, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Newsday Friday. " … So hiring and paying a lawyer to prepare [for] a civil suit is enough to become financially crippling."
It's an election year, with the offices of county executive, legislator, county clerk, comptroller and district attorney up for grabs.
And what politician wants Nassau's powerful police unions working against them?
But there's national context that also cannot be ignored.
"As part of the political backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and accompanying public protests of the last two years, a handful of communities have passed laws making it a "hate crime" to harass or harm police and first responders because of their work," the NYCLU said in opposing the measure.
"Now, Nassau County proposes to join that backlash by amending its Human Rights Law to make it an 'unlawful discriminatory practice' — a hate crime — to 'harass, menace, assault or injure … a first responder."
Those "accused under this law would face criminal sanctions, mandatory civil penalties, and civil suit damages without any opportunity to present evidence that they weren't acting out of bias," the group said.
In short, under the measure, it wouldn't necessarily matter what a civilian meant during an interaction with police or other first responders — only what a first responder thought they meant.
The legislation's preamble says a lot about a lot of things.
"It is the judgment of this legislature that the recent widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at police has undermined the civil liberties of the community at large," the measure states.
"It has been reported that over 700 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have sustained injury in civil unrest since the close of May of last year, according to the United States Department of Justice," the legislation continues. "This legislature notes, with extreme concern, that in many jurisdictions, outbreaks of destructive rioting and lawlessness have deliberately targeted and victimized law enforcement officers and first responders. This legislature also recognizes that the clear intent of these attacks is to hinder or prevent the police from performing their duty to enforce the law, and safeguard society from chaos and mass violence."
"Destructive rioting and lawlessness."
"Chaos and mass violence."
No Black Lives Matter protests — or counterprotests, and there have been plenty of those as well — in Nassau or Suffolk have devolved into destructive rioting and lawlessness, or chaos and mass violence.
Not a single one.
Which makes this measure a prescription for an ailment that does not exist.
But there's an election coming up.
And Nassau and its largest police union still are tussling over compensation and other issues.
Curran, a Democrat, is seeking reelection against Bruce Blakeman, a Republican and Hempstead Town Board member who served as the county legislature's first presiding officer.
Which makes this proposal as much a matter of politics, as public policy.
Curran could veto the measure.
Instead, she's bounced it to Letitia James, a fellow Democrat who is New York State's attorney general, for review.
On Friday, Richard Nicolello, the legislature's Republican presiding officer, called Curran out, saying she could veto the measure — even as protesters outside county offices in Mineola pressed the county executive to do just that.
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