Putnam Considers Human Rights Commission

Would work to counter hate crimes, intolerance

While only a few hate-crime incidents have been reported in Putnam in recent years, lawmakers seem to agree that the county should create a Human Rights Commission.

“This was driven by the people of Putnam County,” said Legislator Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown), during the Legislature’s Jan. 23 Rules Committee meeting. “I’ve received a lot of emails and phone calls and input from people who are interested in joining.”

James Hyer, an administrative law judge with the Westchester County Human Rights Commission, told lawmakers that from Sullivan and Dutchess counties south to Suffolk on Long Island, Putnam is the only county that doesn’t have a commission.

Hyer, who drafted a lengthy proposal for the Legislature to review, said he was motivated by the number of hate incidents being reported around the state. “It’s disgusting,” he said, noting that law-enforcement officials reported 525 incidents to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services in 2018 — 352 in New York City and 146 elsewhere.

According to the state, the Putnam County sheriff reported an incident in 2017, and the New York State Police reported two incidents in Putnam in 2017 and one in 2018. There were no incidents reported in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

Hyer said hate crimes don’t affect just the immediate victim but the 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.

“Every community does things differently, and 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.

One task of the commission would be to organize seminars on discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodation, Hyer said. It would also host discussions on addressing hate and intolerance, organize programs to celebrate diversity and speakers for schools and community events, and collaborate with religious organizations and governmental agencies.

The state Division of Human Rights has “a significant budget,” he said, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Housing and Urban Development also have resources.

“Nobody’s ever knocked on their door and said, ‘Please come to Putnam,’ ” he said.

Hyer recommended that a commission be comprised of 12 volunteers, including two people from each town in the county. They would be appointed by the county executive and approved by the Legislature. The commission would have no budget or staff.

Montgomery said a commission would help bring communities together. “In each little pocket of the county we have organizations that are working on these issues,” she noted, but there is no “conversation happening on a county level. This county needs more of an opportunity for public participation, and this is the way to do it.”

Terry Raskin, president of the Putnam Valley Library board, said she and her colleagues supported the idea. “Education is key to preventing discrimination of any kind,” she said.

Masha Waldman, who lives in Mahopac, said acts of intolerance and hate are more prevalent in Putnam County than residents may believe.

“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. 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 happen everywhere, including in Putnam, but said she thinks schools and communities do a good job at promoting respect and kindness. “I think our kids are pretty great,” she said.

Legislator Neal Sullivan (R-Mahopac) said the Legislature will work with the Law Department to create a commission, which he said could take a few months.

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