Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has asked state Attorney General Letitia James to weigh in on a controversial bill that would make Nassau police officers and other first responders "a protected class" under the county's Human Rights Law.
In a letter Tuesday, Curran asked James' office for "guidance" on whether the legislation "strikes the proper legal balance between the government's responsibility to protect its uniformed personnel and its duty not to interfere with the ability of the people to exercise their civil rights legally without fear of penalty."
Law enforcement unions have endorsed the measure, saying incidents of harassment and violence against police officers have increased over the past year. A spokesman for the Nassau County Police Department this week could not provide data on reported incidents against county police officers.
Opponents of the legislation — a range of police reform advocates including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the LGBT Network, a nonprofit advocacy for LGBT people on Long Island and in Queens, and others — have said the bill would curtail free speech by citizens by subjecting people to lawsuits for verbal remarks made to officers.
In addition, the opponents have said they reject giving first responders protected status now reserved for groups that historically have experienced "discrimination" or "oppression."
David Kilmnick, president and CEO of the LGBT Network, was among those who testified against the Lafazan bill.
In an interview with Newsday on Wednesday, Kilmnick called the bill's passage "one of the most disgusting displays of ignorance and incompetence."
He continued: "For more than a dozen years, we have tried to get transgender people covered under the Human Rights Law, which makes their votes even more upsetting and disturbing … If they [Nassau legislators] truly cared they would expand the law to protect people discriminated against for who they are."
Kilmnick predicted opponents would sue if the bill becomes law, but "we are hoping it doesn't get to that point."
Minority Leader Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), an opponent of the bill, said in an interview Tuesday that the Human Rights Law is not the way to give first responders more protection.
He said the key issue is, "How do we do something that protects police and doesn’t enrage communities?"
Referring to the turnout of opponents at the legislative meeting Monday, he said, "I never believe a bill is as valuable when you see that kind of opposition."
Representatives of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, the Superior Officers Association and the Correction Officers Benevolent Association spoke in favor of the bill Monday.
Nassau PBA President James McDermott told Newsday Wednesday he was pleased "the county legislature voted in favor of adding another layer of protection" for police officers.
"It's not by chance that Nassau County has been rated the safest county in America," McDermott said. "This honor truly belongs with the public and the politicians that support us and allow us to do our jobs."
Asked about Curran's request for an opinion from James, McDermott said: "I have no control what the county executive does. I hope it comes back in our favor. I will be reaching out to her in regards."
Curran, a Democrat who is seeking reelection in November, has 30 days to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation, which passed in the county legislature by a vote of 12-6 Monday night.
The bill passed after an emotionally charged, eight-hour legislative meeting in Mineola that drew more than 60 speakers, nearly all of whom spoke in opposition to the bill.
The attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment about Curran's request.
Ten Republicans and two members of the Democratic caucus — bill sponsor Joshua Lafazan, a Woodbury independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Legis. Delia DeRiggi Whitton (D-Glen Cove) — voted for the measure. Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) was absent.
A supermajority of 13 votes in the Republican-controlled county legislature would be required to override a Curran veto.
The Lafazan bill would allow the county attorney to file lawsuits on behalf of first responders seeking financial damages against protesters for "discrimination."
The legislation would give first responders the ability to sue individuals for harassing, injuring, menacing or assaulting them because of their status as a first responder or while they are in uniform.
Penalties for "discriminating" against a first responder could rise to $25,000 per violation, or up to $50,000 if the violation occurs "in the course of participating in a riot."
The United States code defines a riot as a "public disturbance" involving violence with "one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more." The definition also covers threats or the threat of violence.
The Nassau County Human Rights Law currently bars discrimination based on factors including race, disability, gender and sexual orientation.
In her letter to James, Curran said Nassau "is proud of our brave law enforcement officers, and others serving as first responders. Protecting them from harm is a vital priority of my administration."
Curran continued, "at the same time, the county must not take any action to impede or chill the constitutional rights of citizens to assemble and protest peaceably."
Correction: A previous version of this misstated the scope of the Nassau County Human Rights Law. The statute was amended in 2019 to protect first responders from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.