A county in New York approved a controversial bill Monday allowing first responders, including police officers, to sue protesters or others who harass them or cause them bodily harm due to their profession.
Approved by the Republican-led Nassau County Legislature along a 12-6 vote, the bill cites the needs for added protections for law enforcement, as a "recent widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police has undermined the civil liberties of the community at large."
It now goes before Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat seeking reelection who has not indicated whether or not she will sign the measure. In a statement after its passage Monday, she did say she would be "making an inquiry to the Attorney General’s Office to review and provide some advice."
"I’m proud of the dedicated first responders who’ve made Nassau the safest County in America, and I will continue to stand against defunding the police," Curran said, though acknowledging that there were many speakers who questioned the proposed legislation. "My Administration is committed to protecting the brave men and women of law enforcement who keep us safe."
More than 200 people flooded the Nassau County Legislature’s chambers in Mineola on Long Island, before the bill came to a vote Monday, Newsday reported. Some argued the bill intended as retaliation against those who participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Civil rights leaders decried the legislation for making law enforcement a "protected class" under the county’s Human Rights Law. Critics argue a chosen profession should not fall under those protections, which are meant for groups who have historically discriminated against because of the color of their skin or sexual orientation. There are also concerns the bill could violate protesters’ First Amendment rights.
"This bill would hijack the Human Rights Law and penalize ‘discrimination’ against a police officer more harshly than ‘discrimination’ against groups that have historically faced persecution and discrimination in our country," Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability said in a statement Friday.
In urging legislators to vote against the "misguided" legislation, the group said it is meant as "backlash to calls for meaningful police reform, undermines efforts to improve police-community relations, does nothing to improve safety for police officers, and come at the expense of our democracy."
The measure makes it "an unlawful discriminatory practice to harass, menace, assault or injure an individual due to such individual’s status as a first responder and that those who violate this provision be subject to a substantial civil penalty and as well as civil liability to the first responder."
"Because organized mob violence undermines the foundations of law, democracy and ordered liberty, and severely impairs the ability of citizens to engage in peaceful protest, such damages are trebled when the first responder is injured in the course of a riot," the bill says. It also allows law enforcement to sue for punitive damages, and violators are required to pay officers’ legal costs and attorneys’ fees.
The measure would allow for officers to seek up to $20,000 per violation, or up to $50,000 if the offense occurred during a riot. Law enforcement could seek triple the usual amount permitted for civil penalties.
The bill cites Department of Justice data indicating that more than 700 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have sustained injury in civil unrest since the close of May of last year.