It seemed the real matter of urgency about the anti-harassment law aimed at protecting first responders came after it was passed along party lines by the Monroe County Legislature in November, a week after County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo lost her re-election bid.
Dinolfo signed the bill it into law on Dec. 2, a couple of hours after 36 people spoke against it during an afternoon public hearing at which no members of the Republican-led legislature attended. Opponents said the law was unconstitutional and would damage police-community relations.
“We need to get right on this,” Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell said after learning that the bill had been signed.
They did. Flagler said activists mobilized, and on March 10, the legislature is expected to vote to repeal the law.
Republican Legislator Karla Boyce, who led the effort to pass the bill, on Feb. 13 announced a bipartisan effort to wipe it from the books. Democratic Minority Leader Vince Felder is the co-sponsor.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until you look through somebody else’s lens,” Boyce said before reading prepared remarks. “You have to look at your heart and do what you believe is right.”
The measure for repeal has to go through a committee before it comes to the full legislature.
Democrats have only 14 of the 29 seats. Boyce’s vote will give them a majority of 15 for repeal. She said Legislator President Dr. Joseph Carbone and Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew helped draft the legislation to overturn the bill. So it’s expected the repeal vote will have more Republican support.
Why the 180-degree turn?
Boyce said that it wasn’t until after the law had passed that she started getting reaction.
“I heard from people from all over the community, different races, genders, ages, professions,” she said. “Some who agreed with the law, some who did not. The conversations were not always pleasant, but as an elected official we don’t only represent those who agree with us.”
She said each conversation helped her understand other perspectives. She said in most cases, the invitation to talk was mutual.
She had conversations with the Rev. Lewis Stewart of the United Christian Leadership Ministry. The long-time civil rights activist who organized protests against the bill stood with several Democratic legislators as Boyce announced her effort to repeal the bill.
He said he’d never seen a public official who sponsored a bill recant that support.
“The activists in the civil rights movement and their allies were the one that brought change,” Stewart said. “But never someone who made a law that seems to me to be an apartheid type of law and then turn around and say I’m going to repeal this because it’s just not right.”
Stewart said Boyce “decided to make a courageous moral stand and I pat her on the back for that.”
Boyce said she intended the bill as a way to safeguard first responders. But the language was vague and opponents said it begged for a constitutional challenge. Police departments and the Office of the Monroe County Sheriff said New York penal law already protected first responders, and they would not enforce the law. Just having it on the books meant that someday, it could be used.
Boyce said she’s gone through a painful two months.
“It took some time and courage to say I was wrong,” Boyce said.
She said she had conversations with Felder and Flagler-Mitchell, and talked with people who live outside her district of Henrietta, Mendon, Pittsford and Rush. She said she didn’t see how those living in areas of the city or even other parts of the community could have a different perspective on police-community relations. In her career, she has worked with at-risk youth and she is pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling.
She said she’s worked with youth who’ve had positive and negative interactions with police. “Looking through their eyes, I can better understand many of the concerns raised in the months since the law was adopted.”
Felder said that people often don’t listen when African-Americans point out potential problems with laws.
“It takes that understanding,” he said. “Karla has the understanding now. That’s why she’s willing to lead the charge.”
Asked if she changed her mind for political reasons, Boyce said, “Sometimes you have to put politics aside.” At the time, she declined to say if she were seeking other office, but on Feb. 15 the Republican Committee endorsed her for the office of county clerk.
All politics is local
The bill titled “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County came up in October, but only two people spoke at the meeting where it was introduced.
Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart said the bill got “lost in the noise of the election.” It wasn’t protested until it was passed.
On the same night that the legislature passed what came to be call the anti-annoyance bill, it passed the CABLE Act of 2019, which would have limited the power of the county executive, who was incoming Democrat Adam Bello. Both bills were labeled matters of urgency, which Democratic legislators said is a subjective designation. The CABLE Act was rescinded.
Flagler-Mitchell said the episode contained an important civics lesson – people need to pay attention. He said county government affects lives every day but often is overshadowed by what’s happening with the city schools, city council, state and federal government.
“We fought this law, but we fought it from behind,” he said. “We should have been fighting it from the beginning.”