With the powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the Blue Lives Matter movement also saw a massive uptick in support as a result. While each movement claims to support an oppressed minority — Black Americans and police officers, respectively — many opposed to the Blue countermovement posit that the two groups can’t possibly be compared as equal counterparts. Opponents say “Blue lives don’t exist” as this idea comprises people of a chosen profession, not a classifiable minority group. Some Suffolk County lawmakers are trying to change that.
Suffolk Legislators Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) and James Mazzarella (R-Moriches) proposed amending Suffolk’s human rights law to protect current and former public safety workers — including police, peace officers, first responders and volunteer firefighters — from harassment and intimidation. Noting the county’s commitment to “protect vulnerable populations from discrimination,” the law, if passed as-is, would give public safety workers the same level of protected minority status as those of marginalized groups base on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, citizenship and other similar identifiers.
This bill comes hot on the heels of a bill that passed 12-6 in Nassau County Legislature in August but was then vetoed by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran based on guidance from New York Attorney General Letitia James. James’ main concern was the constitutionality of allowing police to sue protesters, inhibiting their freedom of speech and protest. This and many other issues were voiced by more than 30 Suffolk residents who drove out to Riverhead to oppose the proposal at the September 9 county meeting.
By far the most widespread complaint was the sheer “slap in the face,” as two residents described it (as did LGBT Network President/CEO David Kilmnick in a post-meeting correspondence), of rewriting local human rights law to include the public safety profession among protected classes that have histories of being harassed by police, coworkers and others.
“Being Black or Brown, a member of the LGBTQIA community or a religious minority is worthy of further protection under the law, because they cannot always protect themselves, or have in place protections against discrimination or bias. Law enforcement doesn’t fit that description, does it?” Gahrey Ovalle asked legislators at the meeting. “As a matter of fact, they are oath-takers, and what law enforcement needs is accountability and not another ‘get out of jail free card.’”
He wasn’t alone in taking offense at the proposal.
“Human rights and discrimination laws exist to protect those who are historically marginalized and oppressed in our society. No profession, in and of itself, would or should fit into these laws,” Kilmnick wrote in an email reacting to the proposed resolution’s contents. “This proposed bill is a slap in the face to all people of color, LGBTQ people, women, the disabled and other groups who face the daily and lifetime realities of discrimination. The questions that many folks wake up with every day are, ‘Am I going to lose my job because of the color of my skin; am I going to be beaten or murdered because I’m transgender; or can I walk down the street safely because I may be holding hands with someone of the same gender.’
“That’s the real threat that exists in our society,” he continued. “The threat of police officers being attacked just because they’re police officers is a bunch of nonsense, and a political ploy and distraction. This bill fails in its merits, substance and is not only morally wrong and dangerous, but also constitutionally wrong. If the legislature seriously wants to look at human rights issues, I welcome that conversation and say bring it on. We have a lot of serious work to do to protect those that are marginalized and discriminated against in Suffolk.”
While many of the September 9 speakers were quick to point out that a person’s chosen career cannot qualify them as a protected class, Elena Faverio delved into why the classes listed in the county human rights law are listed in the first place.
“This list, you’ll notice, is entirely comprised of members of necessarily protected classes characterized by inherent traits that have historically been met with bias and discrimination and systemic oppression,” they said. “So we’re talking about systems of oppression here, for example, the government, the law and the police.”
Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, offered a different interpretation of Suffolk’s human rights law, noting that the verbiage says no one can be discriminated against based on race, gender, marital status and the like. This means the law that protects neutral protected classes against housing and employment discrimination protects straight white men just as much as minority groups. With this in mind, the proposal could be considered special treatment rather than equal treatment, because it prioritizes one class of professionals over others rather than simply amending the human rights law to include “profession” as another identifier that can’t be used to discriminate.
“People who have been discriminated against because of immutable characteristics for hundreds of years in this country will not have the rights that people have in a non-neutral law that only cherry-picks certain professions, not all professions,” Wilder explained.
Some speakers found a companion bill proposed by Legislators Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) and Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), redundant by design, as both provide protections that are covered in county or New York State law already. For instance, both bills would make it illegal to dox — publicly share someone’s private address or other personal information in an effort to intimidate or bring harm to them — a current or former public safety worker, but Suffolk cyberstalking law already prohibits “disseminating the private, personal or sexual information of a person without his or her permission.”
“It’s not that public safety workers don’t need protection, it’s that they already have protection, as they should,” Cindy Paterno of Long Island Network for Change and Long Island United told the legislature during the public hearing. “There are penalties for assaulting a police officer, a violent felony with a minimum of two years to life, no parole. Causing a police officer to come into contact with a foreign substance. Falsely accusing a police officer of wrongdoing. There is qualified immunity. There is Penal Code 120.08, which covers peace officers, police, firefighters, EMTs, a Class C felony for causing injury.”
“This type of legislation is wholly unnecessary and is part of the larger growing opposition against the Black Lives Matter and police accountability movement that has been growing on Long Island,” said Elmer Flores, a community organizer with the Long Island Social Justice Action Network. “These bills only serve the purpose to further the myth that there is a war of violence against police when that is not the case today.”
Additional opponents spoke about the conflict of interest found when letting police, the authority on whether or not a hate crime has been committed, dictate whether such a hate crime has been perpetrated on a member of their own class. Many shared personal anecdotes of times when their minority status was the source of unchecked discrimination, and others were quick to make accusations.
“This bill feels like it’s about sending a message that you are pro law enforcement for the next election,” said Jonah Kaufman of Long Island Network for Change and Long Island United. “It feels like your goal is to tell the (police unions) that, ‘See, we’re on your side. We’re even making you a protected class.’”
Of course, the biggest concern that many, including Attorney General James, have had with these Blue Lives Matter bills popping up across the country is the potential infringement of First Amendment rights.
“This is a deliberate attempt at hijacking anti-discrimination law that protects those who have faced historical persecution and discrimination based upon their immutable characteristics. Passing this bill will bring national shame and embarrassment — this is unprecedented, unnecessary and unconstitutional,” Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, Long Island Historical Societies board president and Eastville Community Historical Society executive director said upon reading the proposal after the meeting. “Providing police officers with a private right of action is also unnecessary and a slap in the face to taxpayer public dollars. This bill is an infringement on the rights of citizens to exercise free speech and peaceful assembly, and will eviscerate citizens’ rights to due process, justice and liberty.”
Responding to criticism, the Suffolk legislature amended the bill on September 21 to ensure that nothing “shall be construed to limit an individual’s and/or group’s First Amendment Right of freedom of expression and association, including but not limited to, the right to engage in peaceful protest.” But, according to critics, additional tweaks would have to be made to prevent any other rights infringement issues, should the resolution become law.
“Due to the vague language of this resolution, it violates the 14th Amendment which requires that the law give people adequate notice of exactly what behavior could get them in trouble,” said Nia Adams of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.
“I feel like I wouldn’t know what I can and can’t say to get in trouble, and it might make me afraid to speak out if I see injustice happening,” said Cassandra Klewicki, the daughter of a retired NYPD lieutenant, explaining the need to further clarify what could be deemed as lawsuit-worthy offenses.
Of the roughly three dozen speakers addressing the bill at the legislature’s most recent general meeting, only two were in favor of it, both of whom were booed by the hostile audience until Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) restored order. First up was William Faller, vice president of the Suffolk County Corrections Officers Association, the union that represents the county’s jail guards. He echoed Ian Wilder in saying, “No one should be subject to threats, harassment or physical harm because of the job that they perform or the uniform that they wear.” He added that while public safety personnel know the risks donning the uniform entails, they still go out every day to protect the public and save lives, and passing the bill would be a great way for Suffolk to demonstrate their loyalty to these heroes.
Lou Civello, the second vice president for the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the department’s rank-and-file officers, spoke of an incident in April, when police were called to Patchogue Library to investigate an individual making a scene of filming on his phone in the no-filming space. When Sergeant Jon Steigele of Suffolk’s 5th Precinct arrived, it was clear the individual, now reciting his First Amendment rights, was looking to get arrested for the internet clout. No arrest was made. The man then published the video to his Long Island Audit YouTube channel, which has nearly 100,000 subscribers, and the video received twice as many views.
According to Civello, the video attracted the attention of someone capable of doxing Steigele, tweeting the sergeant’s address and mocking him on the police department’s Twitter.
“We’re not asking you to stop people from being able to identify police officers. We have to give out our names now, not just our badge numbers, on business cards,” Civello concluded. “We’re asking you to protect our families, that’s what this is about, and that’s why you should support this bill. Every day officer Steigele goes to work, his family would worry about him. Well, now it’s the reverse; now he has to worry about his family and who’s coming to his house and who might be knocking on his door to target his family simply because he’s a police officer.”
Following the meeting, including a particularly eye-opening exchange between Advocates for Police Accountability member Lisa Votino and legislators Berland and Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), the doxing bill received a September 23 amendment expanding its scope to protect all Suffolk residents. The question remains about whether its sister bill gets similarly expanded to protect Suffolk residents from discrimination based on profession or if it will stand as a Blue Lives Matter bill in concept. Both resolutions will be back on the table for discussion and motioning at the October 5 meeting.