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Opponents say the law passed in Monroe County, New York, is too vague and likely unconstitutional.
UPDATE: This story was edited after publication on Tuesday to include new statements from Monroe County law enforcement released on Wednesday. They pledged not to enforce the anti-annoyance law.
A New York county this week outlawed any behavior that “intends to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety” of on-duty police officers or other first responders.
The passage of the anti-harassment measure in Monroe County, which includes the city of Rochester, was met with protests from activists and some local officials, who said the wording of the law, especially the inclusion of “annoy,” makes it too subjective to an individual officer’s perceptions.
“There are already laws on the books protecting officers from threats or assault,” said Rev. Lewis Stewart, president of the United Christian Leadership Ministries of western New York, a group that organizes for social justice causes. “The law is very vague, very subjective, and very dangerous. It’s going to have a negative impact on communities of color.”
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, who signed the legislation into law on Monday, told WROC that “the intent of the law is [to ensure] that the first responders, those that are protecting our community … [are] well-protected.” Violators convicted of the misdemeanor crime could face as much as a year in prison or a fine of up to $5,000.
Monroe County Legislator Karla Boyce, one of the bill’s sponsors, said law enforcement expressed support for the measure. “Our first responders and law enforcement respond to emergencies and dangerous situations each and every day to protect the community,” Boyce, a Republican, said in a statement. “It is my hope that this local law will foster an environment in Monroe County that respects police officers and first responders while they are working.”
County Legislator Vince Felder and Rochester City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, both Democrats, countered that the bill’s passage in the Monroe County Legislature was irregular. Lightfoot, himself a retired Rochester firefighter, said the bill was passed by a 17-10 vote “as a matter of urgency” meaning it was allowed to bypass the typical legislative process where it goes through committee and has a public hearing before a full vote. Instead, the bill skipped committee and was taken to vote on the same day as the hearing. “There wasn’t enough time for public conversation with anyone, first responders, activists, the community,” he said. “It was a totally backwards way of going about the democratic process.”
The public hearing was held at 2 p.m. on a weekday, which Stewart said prevented many people from attending. “We felt it was something insidious, like they didn’t want public comment on it,” he said.
Felder said he was concerned that first responders and police were not involved in drafting the law. Boyce and Dinolfo did not respond to a request for comment about the involvement of law enforcement.
Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter on Tuesday declined to comment, as did the Rochester police department. But on Wednesday, Baxter said in a statement that his department would not enforce the new law. Other law enforcement leaders, including Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, made the same pledge.
"This is a solution to a problem that does not exist...After careful analysis and discussion with union leadership, I have decided no member of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office shall make an arrest for violation of this law," Baxter said. The police chief of Brighton, a nearby town in Monroe County, had previously expressed opposition to the new law.
Retired firefighter Sean McCabe, who headed a firefighters' union, told the Democrat & Chronicle that the bill will help first responders. "It is a tool in the box to help keep responders safe when they are performing their service and jobs for individuals in need," he said.
When introducing the measure in October, Boyce referred to "recent events” as the reason it was needed, including a case in New York City, where an officer was doused with water. Boyce pointed to one local example, an incident where EMTs were attacked by two people they were checking on during an overdose call. "The disrespect that has been shown to our responders cannot be tolerated," Boyce said.
Felder said that state laws already exist criminalizing obstruction of police, firefighters, and emergency personnel. It is also against the law in New York to assault police officers and other first responders.
The anti-harassment bill was introduced after Rochester voters in November overwhelmingly approved a referendum establishing an independent police review board. “Some people see this as striking back at the referendum,” Felder said. “It’s a slap in the face for people who are really working hard on the relationship between the police and the community.”
Lightfoot said that Rochester has made “tremendous strides” in police-community relations in the past few years. Since 2017, the city has held four community summits on policing, all focused on building trust. “The police department has made a real effort to improve things,” he said. “To have a bill like this as we’re trying to rebuild trust shows poor leadership.”
Iman Abid, director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the ACLU of New York, said that the bill likely violates the First Amendment. “The concept of ‘annoying’ is so discretionary, and putting that in the hands of police is problematic,” she said. “What if an officer is asking someone to be quiet, and they state their rights—is that annoying? It’s not only vague, but unnecessary. We’re concerned it could restrict freedom of speech, and hurt people of color the most.”
Felder and Lightfoot also expressed concerns about the vagueness of the legislation. Felder suggested it might lead to violence if, for example, someone videotapes an officer and they find that annoying. “If I then get arrested for something I don’t think I should be arrested for, suddenly I’m getting resisting arrest and other charges, or it will lead to violence, and possibly death,” he said. “It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Stewart said that his organization is meeting with attorneys on Thursday to plan for a lawsuit against the county. He said the county should have considered the cost of defending such a law in court, saying the proceedings “will unfairly burden taxpayers.”
State Supreme Courts in Washington, Nebraska, Michigan, and Connecticut have all upheld the right of citizens to be “disrespectful and annoying” towards police. In some of these cases, the courts ruled that calling police officers swear words or flipping them off did not rise to the level of “fighting words,” meaning they threatened violence. That meant swearing at an officer is protected under freedom of speech laws.
The Supreme Court in 1971 also ruled that the word “annoying” was too vague to be constitutional. In a case about an ordinance in Cincinnati, Ohio that criminalized people who “conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by,” the court found that “conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others. Thus, the ordinance is vague, not in the sense that it requires a person to conform his conduct to an imprecise but comprehensible normative standard, but rather in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.”
Lightfoot noted that Rochester is one of six cities working with the National League of Cities to examine their policies and practices through a racial equity lens. If the bill had gone through that type of examination, he said it would not have passed. “This shows why the county needs to do racial equity work as well,” Lightfoot said. “This should come from the top-down. These are the types of things that happen when you don’t approach legislation with a racial equity lens.”
This article has been corrected to clarify that Willie Lightfoot is a city councilmember, not a county legislator.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.