A new law in upstate New York’s Monroe County makes it illegal to harass or annoy a first responder. Doing so could land you in jail with a hefty $5,000 fine.
Yet police in the area say they won’t be enforcing it, citing concerns that the law’s ambiguity may not hold up in court.
“Somebody standing on the street corner yelling at you, swearing at you — that’s all protected under the First Amendment,” said Gates Police Chief James VanBrederode, president of the Monroe County Chiefs of Police Association. “It was also our opinion that the county law seemed kind of vague.”
The “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer, or First Responder in Monroe County” bill passed by the Republican majority of the Monroe County Legislature in late 2019. It criminalizes behavior that intends “to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of a police officer, peace officer or first responder” in the line of duty.
“At face value, I thought anything that we could do to support first responders would be helpful, right?” said Majority Leader Steve Brew. “I think a lot of it was a result of what we were seeing downstate and some of the obstruction that was going on with the first responders, and that’s something that we would be able to proactively prevent from happening up here.”
Yet the law comes in an era when law enforcement agencies across the country have taken steps toward de-escalation and improving police accountability and community relations. It quickly became controversial, sparking protests that the “anti-annoyance” policy, as it’s been dubbed, could exacerbate racial profiling and discrimination in the county’s minority communities.
U.S. Census data shows a large majority of Monroe County’s residents are white, 16 percent are black, and 9 percent are Latino.
VanBrederode said he thinks the legislators who supported the bill thought they were helping first responders, but the law just isn’t enforceable.
In a letter to county leaders and law enforcement, a group of local lawyers argued that the law goes against the latest principles of policing best practices, which favor de-escalation over penalization, and would lead to further distrust in law enforcement.
“This law will enhance tension and provide officers who are particularly sensitive with a tool to punish those who bother them. There are already numerous lawsuits pending against the Rochester Police Department, often involving the same officers time and again. This statute may give them a sense that they decide what the law is. Because this statute does give them that authority,” they write.
But despite the opposition, outgoing Republican County Executive Cheryl Delfino signed the bill into law in December 2019, just weeks before she was to be replaced by Adam Bello, the first Democrat to be elected to the position in three decades. When reached for comment, Bello’s office did not say whether he plans to pursue a repeal of the legislation or leave it as is.
VanBrederode said he thinks the legislators who supported the bill thought they were helping first responders, but the law just isn’t enforceable. Besides, there is already a state law protecting this group; the key, however, is that there must be some type of physical obstruction — blocking their way to a crime scene or dumping water on their heads, for example — not verbal annoyance, he said.
Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter issued a statement saying he was directing his department not to enforce the law, calling it “a solution to a problem that does not exist.” A spokeswoman for the police department in Rochester, the county seat, confirmed the department would not be enforcing the law either.
Brew said he didn’t anticipate so much pushback, and it’s disappointing to see the lack of enforcement for a law that was meant to do good.
“I understand where the folks in some of the urban areas really push back on it rather strongly, where some of the folks out in the suburbs just didn’t view that in the same way,” he said. “I think they did view that as something that would be of some help to first responders. The intent was well meaning.”
According to News 8 WROC out of Rochester, last week Republican lawmaker Karla Boyce, who once supported the law, now opposes it due to the “adverse affect the law may disproportionately have on communities of color” and will work with Bello to repeal it.