While there is discrepancy over the frequency of hate crimes occurring in Putnam County, lawmakers seem to agree that the creation of a Human Rights Commission would breed only positive outcomes.
“This was driven by the people of Putnam County, in particular James Hyer,” explained Legislator Nancy Montgomery, D-Philipstown, during the county’s Jan. 23 Rules Committee meeting. Montgomery is leading the charge to have the commission created.
“I’ve received a lot of emails and phone calls and input from people who are interested in joining the commission,” she said.
Hyer is an administrative law judge at the Westchester Human Rights Commission. He explained that from Sullivan and Dutchess counties, all the way down to Suffolk, Putnam is the only county that doesn’t have a Human Rights Commission.
“They are doing amazing things for their communities, and that’s what we should be doing here,” he told lawmakers last week.
Hyer, who drafted a lengthy proposal for the Legislature to review, said he was inspired to do so while watching the number of hate incidents happening around the state climb. “It’s disgusting,” he said. And “not necessarily true” that these acts aren’t happening in Putnam County.
“In 2018, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services reported 525 incidents of hate crimes throughout the State of New York, and in the report it made it very clear that most incidents of hate are not reported,” explained Hyer. “So 525 probably only represents a fraction of what’s happening that we need to respond to.”
In addition, he said the FBI issued a report in 2018 stating that hate crime occurrences were rising rapidly in the Hudson Valley. And in June 2019, the New York Times reported that hate crimes were up 64 percent in this region.
Earlier this month, a cross in East Fishkill was vandalized, and about a week ago, a menorah was desecrated with a white supremacist sticker.
Hyer said these types of hate crimes don’t have just one victim, but attack the whole community. “What we need to do is put something in place to protect all of our citizens, and creating a Human Rights Commission will do just that,” he said.
The commission would focus on education and outreach in all communities across the county, and organize seminars on discrimination and housing, employment, credit and public accommodation said Hyer. It would also arrange panel discussions on addressing hate and intolerance, as well as programs to celebrate diversity.
The commission would bring speakers to schools and community events, create collaborative relationships with houses of worship and governmental agencies, and facilitate resources coming into the county.
He explained that the NYS Division of Human Rights has “a significant budget,” and that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also have resources to tap into.
“Nobody’s ever knocked on their door and said ‘please come to Putnam,’” said Hyer.
He recommends that the commission be comprised of 12 volunteer members, including two people from each town in the county. They would be appointed by the county executive and approved by the Legislature.
There would be no budget for the commission, as it would have no staff, and all events could be hosted by community groups such as libraries, synagogues, and other locations. Therefore, there would be no cost to the county or taxpayers.
Legislator Montgomery said a Human Rights Commission would help bring communities across the county together.
“In each little pocket of the county we have organizations that are working on these issues, but what we don’t have is the whole county coming together with representative from each town and the conversation happening on a county level,” she said. “I just think this county needs more and more of an opportunity for public participation and I think this is the way to do it.”
Putnam Valley Library Board of Directors President Terry Raskin said she and her board are in full support of the commission.
“Education is key to preventing discrimination of any kind,” she said. “I can guarantee you, with the Putnam Valley Library, we are very anxious to continue doing programs that promote understating.”
Masha Waldman of Mahopac said acts of intolerance and hate are more prevalent in Putnam County than others may think.
“My big concern is that it’s very easy to live in this bubble and not realize what’s going on if you are white, straight and financially secure,” she said. “We have incidents now and then where there’s a flair up of boys behaving badly at a sports event and we say, ‘Oh, it’s a few bad apples.’ I’m sorry to tell you the truth – it’s pervasive and it’s insidious.”
Legislator Amy Sayegh, R-Mahopac Falls, acknowledged that prejudice and bullying happens everywhere – including Putnam – but said, overall, she thinks the schools and community do a good job at promoting respect and kindness.
“I think our kids are pretty great,” she said of the local school districts.
Legislator Neal Sullivan, R-Mahopac, said the Legislature will work with the law department to craft bylaws and begin the necessary steps to begin creation of the Putnam County Human Rights Commission, which he said will likely take a few months.
Hyer said he’s excited to see the vision come to fruition.
“Every community does things differently and I think the magic will happen when you folks appoint people to this commission and they decide what they need in Carmel, or what they need in Patterson, or Philipstown, and they work together to make these things happen,” he said.