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County Executive Dinolfo signs bill making it a crime to harass first responders

Patti Singer

A person signs in to speak at a hearing Dec. 2, 2019 on a county bill that would make it a crime to harass a first responder. County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo signed the bill shortly after the hearing ended. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

First on the steps of the County Office Building, and then in the chambers of the County Legislature, religious leaders, elected officials and residents lined up Dec. 2 to urge County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo not to sign a bill they said would do more harm than good.

Less than two hours later, Dinolfo signed the “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County.”

“It was a stab in the gut,” said the Rev. Lewis Stewart of United Christian Leadership Ministry, which organized a rally before the hearing, and he spoke at the hearing. “She knew she was doing it. This was calculated.”

Stewart already had a meeting convened for noon, Dec. 5 at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, but initially that was to discuss letters he’d written to elected officials. Now, the meeting is to determine next steps.

After learning the bill had been signed, Democratic County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell said, “We need to get right on this.”

He said staff would look into how to challenge the law in court.

According to the text of the bill, it becomes law upon filing with the Secretary of State. That is expected to happen within days.

Flagler had been among 36 speakers at a required public hearing who said the bill was unconstitutional because it violated First Amendment rights, could damage police-community relations and might be applied disproportionately against poor people and people of color.

Assistant County Executive Michael Molinari presided over the hearing. About 60 people attended.

Days before the hearing, Dinolfo said she was inclined to sign the bill, which was passed Nov. 12 as a matter of urgency and along party lines by the Republican-led legislature. Dinolfo lost her bid for re-election to Democrat Adam Bello. Republicans also lost seats in the legislature and begin the year with a one-seat majority.

Republicans also had passed a bill Nov. 12 that would curtail the powers of the county executive. However, they withdrew the CABLE Act of 2019. There was hope that the same thing would happen with the anti-harassment law, or that it would go back to the legislature to be reworked.

According to the law, a person who “intentionally engages in conduct … that intends to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety” of the first responder can face a year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

The Rev. Lewis Stewart of United Christian Leadership Ministry listens to speakers who oppose the county’s anti-harassment bill. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

The bill does not define annoying, alarming or threatening behavior, which led speakers to say that anything from using foul language to taking cellphone video to standing near an officer could be construed as harassment.

“The language in the bill is vague, it is subjective,” the Rev. Myra Brown said during the hearing.

“We’re being asked in this bill to choose first responders over the poor,” she said. “We will not do it. We choose justice, we choose accountability, we choose fair play and we choose relationship-building.”

Several attorneys who spoke at the hearing questioned whether the law would stand up in court. Mark Foti cited cases in which similar laws were struck down.

Before passage of what some speakers called the annoyance law, police could arrest a person for inappropriate behavior at a crime scene. But the person could be charged with a violation. The anti-harassment bill makes the infraction a misdemeanor, which has more serious implications.

At the hearing, several speakers said that a person charged under the new law could lose their job if they are tied up in the legal system and miss time from work.

During his two minutes at the microphone during the hearing, Flagler-Mitchell called the bill “an embarrassment. It’s a bill that is offensive to everybody in this room and in this community.”

The retired firefighter said he never felt threatened at a scene. “When firefighters, police officers and ambulance personnel show up, we’re going to help folks.”

Legislator Vince Felder said police have protections and that law enforcement agencies did not ask for the bill. He quoted comments at the hearing from Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle, who said his own police chief, David Catholdi, was against it. Felder said he didn’t think law enforcement would use the bill. “They understand it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Monroe County legislator Vince Felder speaks outside the County Office Building at a rally Dec. 2, 2019 opposed to the anti-harassment bill.

Neither Dinolfo nor any Republican legislators attended the hearing, which began at 2 p.m. Other Democrats who attended were Rachel Barnhart, Sabrina LaMar, Vince Felder, Howard Maffucci and legislator-elect John Baynes. Flagler-Mitchell said several of his Democratic colleagues were not able to leave their jobs to attend the hearing.

There was criticism that because the hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. on the first workday after the Thanksgiving holiday, many people potentially affected by the law could not attend. County spokesman Jesse Sleezer said that public hearings often are during the day, unless they are tied directly to a matter being heard by the legislature at one of its meetings.

Several speakers commented on the absence of Republicans.

“We take time off our jobs and none of the Republican legislators who voted this legislation are here,” said Ashley Gantt, a statewide organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “I feel like this hearing is just a puppet show.”