Westchester County Executive George Latimer signed the Anti-Discriminatory Harassment Bill last Friday, a measure that expands the type of offenses against groups or individuals that can be prosecuted under the law.
The law includes threats, intimidation, harassment and vandalization of property where perpetrators can be found liable and have fines levied against them. The original county law, which was approved in 1999 when Latimer was chairman of the Board of Legislators, has focused on employment, public accommodations, housing, commercial space, land transactions and the issuance of credit.
By including consequences into the law, the county is sending a clear message that hate, harassment and threatening behavior against someone because of who they are will not be tolerated, Latimer said.
“It has a punishment mechanism, a penalty mechanism to deter,” Latimer said. “It expands the areas of protection, not because we seek to just catch people who are doing things wrong, but for them not to do these things. We do not want them to have hatred that drives them to put a swastika on a synagogue or use words that are harassing to another group or to scream out epithets when they drive by and see somebody who is different.”
Tejash Sanchala, executive director of the county’s Human Rights Commission, said if a complaint is lodged and it falls under the statute, there would be an investigation. After that, if the complaint is deemed to have merit, it will be sent to an administrative law judge for a hearing, and that judge would make a determination.
If someone is found to be responsible, they can be fined, Sanchala said.
He said the updated law makes Westchester a leader in combatting the scourge of hate incidents that have arisen in recent years locally, regionally and nationwide.
“This new law goes beyond the protection of the New York State human rights law and provides another area of protection for victims of hate and discrimination,” Sanchala said. “We all know that tears at the fabric of our society, it’s meant to instill fear in our communities.”
Requiring remuneration from an individual, not just businesses or organizations, sends a clear message by the county that discrimination will be addressed in Westchester, whether it’s based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, said Board of Legislators Chairman Ben Boykin (D-White Plains).
“This law says enough is enough,” Boykin said. “If you threaten, intimidate, vandalize property or otherwise harass another human being because of who they are, we will not tolerate it. “This law will send a message that hate and harassment are not welcome in Westchester County.”
James Young, who serves on the county’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, said many residents will benefit from the protections that are included in the law. It is particularly meaningful that the law was signed while commemorating LGBT History Month and just three days before National Coming Out Day.
“This means that no matter, how we identify, how we express our genders, we can take the bus, sit at our local parks, hold our partner’s hands on all the main streets, style our hair, not worry about the clothes that we wear, not live in fear and enjoy our own space, and more importantly, enjoy our own homes without fear of harassment,” Young said.
The legislation, which was introduced in June, was approved unanimously by the Board of Legislators. It will take effect 60 days after last Friday’s signing by the county executive.