WATERTOWN, N.Y. ‒ The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County Supreme Court today arguing that the state Division of Human Rights has jurisdiction to investigate abuse and discrimination complaints against New York police departments and corrections agencies.
DeAnna LeTray, a transgender woman and resident of Watertown, filed a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights over abuse and discrimination she experienced from the Watertown City Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. The state human rights agency rejected the complaint on the grounds that they did not have jurisdiction to investigate because police and corrections agencies are not public accommodations. The NYCLU lawsuit argues that DHR has both the power and the obligation to investigate discrimination complaints against local police and corrections agencies. The Division of Human Rights sits within the executive branch and its commissioner is appointed by the governor.
“Investigating discrimination and abuse allegations against public agencies like the police is exactly what the agency tasked with enforcing the human rights law is supposed to do,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Commissioner should reassess and make clear that discrimination and abuse at the hands of police or in jails is under the purview of the human rights division.”
In September 2017, Ms. LeTray was arrested during a domestic dispute with her daughter’s boyfriend, who she says pointed a gun at her. In her complaint to the Division of Human Rights, Ms. LeTray alleged that the Watertown police who arrested her made disparaging remarks about her gender expression and questioned her gender identity. At the police station, Ms. LeTray says she was forced to remove her wig against her will, and later at the jail, was stripped naked and sexually assaulted. The Division of Human Rights rejected her request for an investigation into the discrimination and abuse, asserting that police behavior is outside their investigative purview.
“I couldn’t believe that I was being treated like that by people in badges. The police need to answer to somebody, but as of right now, there isn’t anyone holding this branch of government accountable. We are hoping to change that,” said plaintiff DeAnna LeTray.
The Division of Human Rights is tasked with enforcing the human rights law, which covers protections against discrimination in public accommodations as well as housing accommodations, education, employment, and other settings. The NYCLU lawsuit argues that police services are public ac commodations because they are owned and operated by state and local governments and provide services to the public at large. Likewise, corrections agencies are housing accommodations because they operate and manage buildings, like jails, which serve as the sleeping place of human beings. Federal courts in New York, as well as state courts in New Jersey and Michigan, have agreed that police services are public accommodations, covered by the Human Rights Law.
“In most places around the state, there are no independent agencies who can investigate and hold police accountable when they violate the rights of New Yorkers,” said Erin Beth Harrist, NYCLU senior staff attorney. “For the many New Yorkers who do not have the resources to get a lawyer and go to court, the Division of Human Rights should be able and willing to investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination by police or in jails.”
The Division of Human Rights complaint process was designed as an alternative to the court system, so that all New Yorkers could have the opportunity to file a discrimination complaint without needing to pay for a lawyer. The case seeks to confirm the Division of Human Rights can be an effective and accessible resource for New Yorkers seeking to hold the police and other enforcement agencies accountable for discrimination and abuse.
In addition to Harrist, NYCLU staff on this case include staff attorney Robert Hodgson, legal fellow Jessica Perry, and paralegal John Paraskevopoulos.