Monroe County's top cops shun 'annoyance law'
A trio of Monroe County's most visible law enforcement officers -- the county sheriff, Rochester's police chief, and the city's police union president -- on Wednesday decried a new county law outlawing intentionally annoying an officer or other first responder.
Sheriff Todd Baxter called the law "a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," while Rochester Police Chief La'Ron Singletary instructed his officers to not enforce the law, citing the likelihood that its constitutionality will be challenged in court.
"It seems to keep just playing over and over like a broken record," said Michael Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club union. "Our elected officers need to get their you-know-what together, straighten things out and go back to doing things the right way."
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo signed the law on Monday over the objections of dozens of speakers, including many criminal defense lawyers, who said the law was redundant, too subjective, and unconstitutional.
The law, dubbed "Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County," criminalizes action that intentionally "annoys, alarms or threatens the personal safety of an officer." The law carries a punishment of up to a year of jail time, up to a $5,000 fine, or both.
The original legislation was introduced by Republican Legislators Karla Boyce and Kara Halstead.
Singletary was the first chief of police in the county to publicly state his officers will ignore the law, although others have since expressed concerns about it.
"As Chief, I believe it to be in the best interest of our members to not take any enforcement action on the local law until such time that the courts make a judicial opinion on this legislation," he said in a prepared statement. "The New York State Penal Law currently allows criminal charges to be lodged against a person that subjects any first responder to conduct that constitutes violent or criminal behavior."
Singletary made his decision after consulting with the city's lawyer, Tim Curtin, according to the statement.
"If it is found that the New York State or Federal Courts uphold this Local Law and find it to be valid under State and Federal Constitutions, further guidance will be issued to officers," Singletary said.
Baxter said that if a person's actions bother an officer enough to take action, there's more than likely already a law on the books to charge the person.
"For example, earlier this year, while members of the Rush Fire Department and Ambulance responded to a reported MVA (motor vehicle accident) on Route 390 in the Town of Rush, multiple members of the fire department and EMS were attacked," Baxter said, in a statement. "The Monroe County Sheriff's Office responded, investigated, and ultimately charged two individuals" with a pair of felonies: second-degree assault and first-degree reckless endangerment.
Mazzeo went further than Baxter, arguing the law is not only redundant, but doesn't necessarily represent the wants or needs of actual officers. Mazzeo said the police union, which represents over 700 Rochester police officers, was not asked for input as the bill was drafted. It's a similar complaint Mazzeo had during the drafting of the Police Accountability Board legislation in the city of Rochester.
If the Locust Club had been more involved in the process, the law -- or one like it -- probably wouldn't even have been drafted, Mazzeo said. Rather, officers would have favored educating the public on interacting with first responders and fostering a stronger relationship between officers and the public.
"I don't know what the intentions were of the people who drafted this bill because, again, I haven't spoken to those who drafted it," Mazzeo said. "Were their intentions to do something positive? Was it something just political? I don't know. But when you don't let people weigh in or you're not given a heads up or told what they're working on, you can only guess, and then all your concerns come out the wrong way -- when it's too late."
Hours before she signed the law Monday, Dinolfo told reporters that she trusts officers will apply the law as intended and that she trusts "our law enforcement officers will do the right thing as they apply this law."
But police chiefs around the county don't even want to put their officers in the position of trying to enforce the law. During a public hearing on the law Monday, for instance, it was revealed that Brighton Police Chief David Catholdi opposed the measure.
Irondequoit police officers won't be using the law and will instead rely on existing state statutes that protect first responders from harassment, threats, and assault.
"When we already have legally sound legislation in place, I'm not sure why we would go down a different path," Irondequoit Police Chief Richard Tantalo said.
Patrick Phelan, the chief of police in Greece, offered a more tempered response.
"I intend to instruct Greece police officers that there may be appropriate circumstances for the law to be enforced, but that the county law does not supersede the Constitution of the United States of America," Phelan said. "If the law is enforced, it will not be enforced in such a way as to infringe on a citizen's constitutional rights. The First Amendment's right to free speech and peaceful assembly will be respected, as well as a citizens' right to video record in a public place."
Fanelli, Andreatta and Moule write for CITY Newspaper, which is a media partner of WXXI News.