The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is suing the New York State Division of Human Rights after it refused to investigate abuse claims against police and correction agencies, saying they were outside of its jurisdiction.
The NYCLU argues that because the Division of Human Rights is responsible for enforcing human rights law in public accommodations, it already has the ability to investigate government agencies like police and correction.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Jefferson County Supreme Court upstate, stems from a complaint by a transgender woman, Deanna Letray, who said the Watertown Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office abused her and discriminated against her in September 2017
Arrested after a domestic dispute, Letray alleges that the Watertown police made disparaging remarks about her gender expression and questioned her gender identity. At the police station, she said, 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, led by a commissioner appointed by the governor, dismissed her complaint because “the respondent police and corrections agencies are not public accommodations under the New York State Human Rights Law,” according to the victim’s petition.
“The New York State Division of Human Rights lacks jurisdiction over these entities in regard to their performance of their function,” the agency stated, according to the plaintiff’s petition.
The NYCLU fired back that the agency was wrong in defining its breadth of jurisdiction.
“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,” the group’s executive director, Donna Lieberman, said in a December 3 written statement. “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.”
Among public accommodations that fall within the jurisdiction of the Division of Human Rights, the NYCLU noted, are housing, education, and employment. To that end, the lawsuit additionally argued that correction agencies fall within the jurisdiction of the Division because those agencies provide housing accommodations.
“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,” Erin Beth Harrist, NYCLU senior staff attorney, said. “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.”