Nassau County’s Republicans responded to calls by the Black Lives Matter movement for police reform following the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year by joining a “Back the Blue” campaign.
Republicans recognized the need for reform following the murder of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
But they said the criticism of the police went too far.
“The Blue Ribbon campaign is in response to attempts by extreme groups to denigrate all police force for the actions of a few,” said Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), Nassau County chairman. “It is intended to show our men and women in law enforcement that we as a district and community value the professionalism, commitment and courage of the overwhelming majority of the men and women in blue.”
We wish the county Republicans had a similar concern for the 140 police officers injured when a President Donald Trump-inspired mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 to overthrow the election.
Or had expressed more interest in fighting systemic racism against blacks in this country. Still, the damage caused by the county’s Republican campaign was limited.
That is not the case with a law passed by Nassau County Legislature last week that allows first responders to sue anyone who harasses, assaults, or injures them while in uniform under Nassau County Human Rights Act.
The bill – passed 12 in favor and 6 against – would allow law enforcement officers, firefighters and ambulance workers to seek and collect monetary and punitive damages, with civil penalties of $ 25,000 for the “injured” first responders and up to 50,000 USD when violations occurred during a “riot”.
And this time around, the bill was tabled by District Legislator Josh Lafazan, an independent who works with the Democrats, and Legislators Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, Arnold Drucker, and Ellen Birnbaum, all of whom are Democrats.
They joined Republican lawmakers in the vote, proving that bipartisanism is overrated in Nassau County. Although, after a heated eight-hour debate, Drucker finally voted against the measure he co-sponsored.
Proponents argued that the bill offers officials additional protection in the face of “destructive unrest and lawlessness” against law enforcement agencies following Floyd’s death in police custody last year.
“There is no justification for violence against first responders. And these bills will provide further legal protection to protect Nassau County’s first responders just as they protect us, ”Lafazan told the Washington Post in a story that has quickly become a national story.
But proponents of the bill did not provide examples of violence against first responders in Nassau County. Or examples of similar laws elsewhere in America, including areas where there have been cases of first-aid violence. Why not?
We agree that there is no justification for violence against first responders – or anyone else. But there are already laws in place that prevent violence against first responders and pretty much everyone else. They are known as criminal laws and we are confident that the police will receive adequate protection under these laws.
Opponents also rightly complained that the bill sets a “dangerous” precedent that undermines freedom of speech and reduces police accountability.
Just think back to the George Floyd case, when numerous witnesses yelled at the police as Det. Derrick Chauvin killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Would the crowd’s comments be viewed as harassment subject to civil penalties?
What if the police responded to people protesting a possible case of excessive police violence outside the Nassau County Executive Building?
When would the crowd harass the police? And when could the protest count as “riot” when the damage is twice as high?
And what is the likelihood that groups that are more politically oriented towards the police will be charged, rather than those who support the politics that the police oppose?
Will the district attorney say no to the police, who are members of politically powerful unions that provide valuable support and thousands of campaign donations to district lawmakers?
Even more important is the deterrent effect of the fines on protesters. Who wants to protest a perceived injustice that could lead to a civil lawsuit costing up to $ 50,000?
Just the threat of a civil lawsuit with taxpayers’ money will deter people from protesting.
And even if someone wins a civil case, they have to pay their lawyer. Legal fees and court fees are indistinguishable for most people – especially those protesting the police.
All of this while the county’s taxpayers, including the defendants, take on the bill for police filing civil suits.
Opponents also indicated that the legislation would make first responders a “protected class” under the county’s human rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on factors such as race, disability, general and sexual orientation.
Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, who previously served as Nassau County’s district attorney, said she was strongly against the law for that reason.
“I support guidelines to protect our police officers and other first responders,” Rice said in a press release. “But it is wrong to codify a chosen profession as an immutable human characteristic in the same way that we classify race, nationality, gender, disability and sexual orientation.
“This law violates the spirit of the county human rights law. And I have serious questions about its legality, ”she added.
Do we agree?
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who has 30 days to approve or veto the legislation, has asked Attorney General Letitia James for comment before making a decision.
We believe Curran shouldn’t wait before vetoing the legislation, but we give her the honor of at least seeing if the law could stand up to judicial challenge.
This still drew criticism from Nicolello, who said “the district executive is obviously looking for an excuse to veto the law”.
Well, if maintaining the First Amendment is an excuse, let’s say that’s a pretty good excuse.
Nicolello also noted that “the county has a full district attorney who advises the county board.”
OK, district attorney vs. former district attorney or current attorney general. Who would you choose And we’re sure the county will never use an outside legal attorney again.
Another problem is simply the rights of first responders versus the rights of ordinary citizens.
District legislation would allow first responders to bring taxpayer-funded lawsuits against protesters when victims of excessive violence cannot seek compensation from first responders based on the doctrine of qualified immunity.
This doctrine, which has been criticized across the political spectrum, fundamentally protects the police from all civil claims – including those relating to murder.
New York City became the first major city to ban qualified police immunity in April, following in the footsteps of Colorado and New Mexico. Connecticut and Massachusetts have imposed more modest restrictions.
The New York Police-Benevolent Association admitted last week that the removal of qualified immunity will encourage police to obey the law.
We have never heard Nassau consider similar reforms, which is not surprising.
Nassau County was one of the top three of the country’s 50 largest police forces that didn’t fully equip its officers with body cameras before police agreed to wear them under a new contract.
And even then, the county had to agree to pay the already well-paid Nassau Police Department $ 3,000 a year to wear what is now considered standard equipment.
But for Nassau it was a step forward. We just hope that Curran picks up the first aid bill and that we don’t take two or three steps back.