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Activists, police unions clash over human rights protections for Suffolk first responders

Suffolk County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) is sponsoring

Suffolk County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) is sponsoring legislation to protect police and other first responders under the county's Human Rights Law. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Dozens of Suffolk residents spoke out Thursday at a legislative hearing against a proposal to protect law enforcement officers under the county’s Human Rights Law, saying it could infringe on the right to free speech and create division.

Backers including Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the bill's sponsor, said the measure would give law enforcement the same protections as other groups as they face what McCaffrey described as increasing hostility from the public.

The legislation, which county lawmakers considered at a public hearing Thursday, would prohibit discrimination and harassment of police officers, peace officers, emergency medical personnel and volunteer firefighters.

Under McCaffrey's bill, first responders would get the same protections as other groups covered by the county Human Rights Law.

The law grants protections against discrimination based on factors including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, marital status and military status.

The Human Rights Law grants individuals who have been discriminated against "a cause of action" to sue in court for damages, injunctive relief and other remedies.

Under the law, the county Human Rights Commission also can levy fines and penalties of up to $100,000 against offenders.

McCaffrey's bill also would prohibit the release of officers' private information online.

In two hours of in-person testimony Thursday afternoon, representatives of groups including the New York Civil Liberties Union Suffolk chapter and the Suffolk County Hispanic Advisory Board, along with Black Lives Matter supporters, spoke against McCaffrey's bill.

Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a fair housing group, said police already are protected under the Suffolk Human Rights Law because it prohibits discrimination based on "lawful source of income."

Wilder said McCaffrey's measure would create a "super-protected class" for law enforcement officers because they would get more protections than civilians.

"A weaponized police force with further protections from accountability is exactly the opposite of what we need today," said Gahrey Ovalle, of Central Islip. "It creates more division and deepens those lines."

Only two speakers — both law enforcement union officials — testified on behalf of McCaffrey's bill.

William Faller, vice president of the Suffolk County Correction Officers Association, said passage of McCaffrey's bill would show county government stands with public safety personnel while not compromising protections for other groups.

"No one should be subject to harassment and discrimination because of the job they perform or the uniform they wear," Faller said.

Suffolk Police Benevolent Association 2nd Vice President Lou Civello said McCaffrey's measure would protect officers who have had their home addresses released online, making them fear for their families’ safety.

"This is not about affecting people's ability to hold police officers accountable," Civello said. "We’re asking you to protect our families."

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signaled he would not sign the bill if it passes.

He said he had similar concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation that state Attorney General Letitia James expressed about a similar bill that Nassau County Executive Laura Curran vetoed last month.

"We need to protect the safety and privacy of our law enforcement personnel, but this bill is not the answer," Bellone, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday.

Curran, a Democrat seeking reelection against Republican Bruce Blakeman in November, expressed concern the law would intimidate people into not engaging in peaceful demonstrations.

Chris Boyle, spokesman for majority Nassau Republican legislators, said GOP lawmakers were considering options, including whether to try to override Curran's veto.

McCaffrey noted that under his measure, police and other first responders would have exactly the same protections as other groups.

Nassau's bill included higher fines for discrimination against public safety workers.

"We seem to be giving the focus on every group except for those that are out there protecting us," McCaffrey said in an interview last week.

Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills), who proposed a separate bill to prohibit online release of information about public safety employees, said she would reexamine her measure after some residents complained they would not have the same protections as law enforcement.

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