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Nassau lawmakers pass bill targeting bias against first responders

Dozens of Nassau residents opposed legislation to cover

Dozens of Nassau residents opposed legislation to cover first responders under the county's Human Rights Law during a meeting Monday in Mineola.  Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

Nassau County lawmakers on Monday night voted to approve a bill to cover first responders under the county's Human Rights Law, after a raucous eight-hour public meeting.

The vote for passage was 12-6.

Opponents complained the measure would place police and other first responders on par with groups including racial minorities and those discriminated against for their religion or sexual orientation.

Police union officials turned out to support the bill, saying their members were being "targeted" because they wear a uniform.

The legislation would make first responders a "protected class" under county the Human Rights Law, which bars discrimination based on factors including race, disability, gender and sexual orientation.

County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat seeking reelection, would not say definitively that she would sign the bill but would be "making an inquiry to the Attorney General’s Office to review and provide some advice."

The bill also would allow the county attorney to file lawsuits on behalf of first responders seeking financial damages against protesters for "discrimination."

No other professions are protected under the Human Rights Law.

The bill was sponsored by Nassau County Legis. Josh Lafazan of Syosset, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

More than 200 people, including civil rights leaders, community activists and members of law enforcement unions packed the legislative chambers in Mineola for the 1 p.m. meeting.

Some opponents shouted at county legislators from the speakers' podium, or approached the dais where lawmakers were sitting.

"We are not anti-police. But what we are is anti-police state. That is not hyperbole. That is what this bill does," said Emily Kaufman of Long Island Police Reform.

James McDermott, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said his members "applaud the Nassau County legislature who continue to stand up for law and order and support our police during this unprecedented time."

At about 5:20 p.m., opponents began chanting "Pull the bill."

Presiding Officer Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) can decline to call bills for a vote or move to table them, under legislative procedures.

The law would be perceived as retaliation after thousands of Black Lives Matter protests, worsening a racial divide in the county and thwarting free speech, opponents said.

Many said there was a lack of data showing violence or harassment against police or other first responders.

"Police are not discriminated against. Black people are. Brown people are. Gay people are. Disabled people are. Women are," said Fred Brewington, a Garden City civil rights attorney.

NAACP Long Island regional director Tracey Edwards said Lafazan supported the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Edwards accused Lafazan of aligning himself with law enforcement unions for political purposes as he runs for reelection in November.

"Presiding officer, please do not have this become Nassau's legacy … just because he [Lafazan] has lost his way. He has lost the respect of our communities forevermore," Edwards told Nicolello.

Lafazan did not respond directly to Edwards' comments. But did speak before the vote saying, "The crimes of harassment and menacing have been on the books for a long time, yet we haven’t seen them used to suppress freedom of speech like the critics of this bill allege — why do we think they will have that effect now?"

Superior Officers' Association President Rick Frassetti said police officers and first responders were "being targeted" because they wear a uniform.

"One of the most important functions of government is to protect its citizens and we are your citizens," Frassetti. said. "We shouldn't be discriminated upon. We are targeted because of our profession."

Police commissioner Patrick Ryder, who did not speak at the meeting, said in a statement: "The protections of our first responders, residents and communities must always be a priority. The Legislature will have an opportunity to discuss and evaluate this bill on its merits and we look forward to its decision."

The number of violent incidents or harassment claims filed by Nassau County police officers was not available on Monday.

Also Monday, the legislature unanimously approved to accept $108 million in settlements from pharmaceutical manufactures and chain pharmacies for their role in the opioid crisis. Nassau created a special fund for the settlement money.

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