Southold Town Police are investigating a pair of “Zoom bombings” — participants espousing racist comments during online town board meetings — but it’s unclear if charges will be filed, authorities said.
The incidents were reported during a January 4 Southold Town Board meeting and a December 20 meeting of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force, both of which were held via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This will probably fall into the realm of a hate incident, not a hate crime,” Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley told the town board during a work session on January 18.
He said Southold detectives received that advice from Suffolk County police Hate Crimes Unit investigators. He said Suffolk police Computer Crimes Unit detectives indicated that the Zoom bombings incidents didn’t meet the threshold for computer crimes charges to be filed against the commenters because the meeting was open to the public.
“Three unknown individuals began yelling racial slurs and when their audio was disconnected they continued to type in the chatroom, continuing the racial slurs,” police said in a statement describing the first incident. “The meeting was eventually closed down. No identifying information was available for the three subjects.”
Hate incidents such as biased comments like the racial slurs used in the Zoom meetings in these two cases are not generally crimes, but Suffolk County prosecutors will decide whether to pursue the case, as some of the comments reportedly included death threats. Some of the comments were made during the first town board meeting to include newly elected councilman Brian Mealy, who is the town’s first Black elected official. Mealy said he did not feel personally attacked, but the town board was concerned nonetheless.
Flatley noted that these two incidents were neither the first of their kind in the town nor are they unique to Southold, as many local government meetings have had such experiences since meetings were largely held online over the past two years. Southold Town lawmakers said they will consider creating a policy to turn off the written comment function of the town board meeting Zooms in which some of the racist comments were made.