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Cops in Nassau County, Long Island, now have the right to sue anyone they accuse of harassing them over their choice of profession, on top of hefty fines individuals may face from the state, all thanks to a new bill passed by legislators on Monday.
The bill, considered the first of its kind, gives county first responders, including police officers, the ability to take legal action against anyone who attacks, injures, or “harasses” them while they’re in uniform—like committing acts that “seriously annoy” officers, such as following them or committing other repetitive actions deemed unnecessary under state law. Any resulting lawsuit can seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs.
In addition to having to pay an officer for their monetary losses, the county will be able to penalize any alleged offender with a fine: up to $25,000 in civil penalties and up to $50,000 if the offense in question occurred during a riot.
The county executive still needs to sign the bill into law.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill over concerns that “destructive rioting and lawlessness have deliberately targeted and victimized law enforcement officers,” according to the text of the legislation, which also cites DOJ data of federal, state, and local law enforcement agents who sustained injuries in the last year. The bill specifically calls out civil unrest that have occurred “since the close of May of last year,” a reference to protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“The intent to chill and dampen protected speech and thwart protestors could not be more obvious.”
“The police are essential to protect the constitutional right of all citizens to protest inequities they see in society. The police are essential to protect citizens’ freedom to speak, or refrain from speaking, from individuals who would use threats and violence to silence those with whom they disagree or to enforce conformity of thought,” the bill says. “Accordingly, the Legislature concludes that the civil, human and constitutional rights of members of society are jeopardized when the police are prevented from carrying out their duty.”
Coincidentally, the bill makes no specific reference to the Capitol Riot in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters threatened and attacked police officers as they broke into the Senate in the name of overthrowing the election of President Joe Biden. Capitol police officers recently recounting the horrors they faced that day before Congress, and several have taken their own lives in the wake of the violence.
Monday night, dozens of Nassau residents testified before the county legislature in opposition of the bill and even chanted “pull this bill” during the public meeting.
The Long Island Advocates For Police Accountability, a local police reform group in the county, feel the bill is “dangerous,” Fred Brewington, an attorney and member of the organization, said in a statement to VICE News. He added that it’s women, members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, and people of color who are discriminated against, not members of law enforcement.
“This law is intended to intimidate those people who would put their bodies on the line for a moral imperative that cannot be denied,” Brewington said. “The intent to chill and dampen protected speech and thwart protestors could not be more obvious.”
But in a statement to VICE News, the bill’s author, Nassau legislator Josh Lafazan, insisted that the bill will not affect or deter peaceful protesters, as it penalizes actions already considered criminal. He also said that first responders are currently a protected class according to a law unanimously approved by the county legislature in 2019. At the time, harassing a peace officer or first responder was punishable by a fine of $5,000, according to the county’s administrative code.
He added that he believes officers won’t abuse these new protections meant to deter people from attacking the cops.
“The crimes of harassment and menacing have been on the books for a long time, yet we haven’t seen them used to suppress freedom of speech like the critics of this bill allege,” he said. “Why do we think they will have that effect now? Why shouldn’t we trust the American judicial system to apply these laws in a constitutional manner civilly just as they have applied them in a criminal context?”
Last August, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill expanding hate crime laws to protect police officers, joining states like Louisiana that have similar laws in place. And since last May, several local municipalities have proposed and even passed legislation that peels back protections for protesters, all in the name of deterring violence against law enforcement.
In Ohio, for example, Republican lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow citizens to use deadly force to protect themselves or escape from the protests they deem threatening.
In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that would give protections to people who decide to drive their vehicles into protesters blocking traffic. Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have all proposed similar bills in the last year.
In Minnesota, legislators proposed a law that would prevent protesters convicted of a protest related crime from applying for various forms of state-funded financial aid.