Suffolk County Police Silence Critics by Harassing a Professor and Bullying Stony Brook University
Op-Ed by SBU Faculty
Why do acts of spectacular police violence against people of color, including the recent murder of Tyre Nichols, feel so painfully like reruns? The answer is as obvious as it is intractable: the police have nearly unchecked power.
Consider another police killing, this one on Long Island just a few months ago, and the flagrant abuse of power that occurred in its wake. In this instance, the public concern over police shootings also collided with an increasing national assault on academic freedom.
The statement by Stony Brook administration issued with full knowledge of the harassment and threats to Prof Hayward, was a public capitulation to the Suffolk County Police and a chilling rebuke of a faculty member’s right to free speech.
A 56-year-old man named Enrique Lopez was shot and killed by three Suffolk County police officers while they were answering a 911 call at a home for people with mental illness or disability. As the police told the story, Mr Lopez attacked them with a knife, injuring two officers. The police fired four times, and Mr Lopez was killed. The officers were later treated at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Two days after the shooting, Stony Brook Medicine posted an update about the condition of the officers on its Instagram account. Dr. Anna Hayward, a professor in Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare, posed several questions from her personal account in reply: “This was a wellness check — why didn’t they de-escalate the situation? … Why did a man have to die? What about the man they murdered?”
The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association (SCPBA) launched a vitriolic and furious response that began with a series of social media posts. The PBA named Prof Hayward publicly, and claimed that she had “displayed a stunning level of ignorance”, calling her questioning of police conduct "shameful", saying they "would sully the reputation of the entire Stonybrook (sic) community with her anti-police rhetoric". These public comments from the PBA had two immediate effects. First, Dr. Hayward was rapidly doxxed on Twitter by individuals who supplied her full name, place of work, work address, home address, email address, and personal phone numbers. This resulted in a wave of online bullying and outright threats of violence to Dr. Hayward and to her family. She received an onslaught of direct messages, texts, emails, and phone calls on her personal cell phone. These included messages from people claiming to be current or former law enforcement, and at least one elected official who used their government email address. Second, a series of irresponsible news media stories emerged that fully accepted the PBA narrative without engaging Dr. Hayward to hear her perspective. These news reports also used screenshots of social media posts that were first sent to Dr. Hayward by those who the PBA had unleashed to harass and bully her.
The PBA further demanded that the university “denounce Dr. Hayward’s hateful comments” and “put an end to the harmful anti-police bias in their program.” Within 24 hours of that demand, Stony Brook University capitulated to the political power of the police union. The university released a public statement signed by Dr. Harold Paz (CEO of Stony Brook Medicine) and Provost Carl Lejuez. This statement, which was emailed to all members of the SBU campus community, posted on the university website, and widely circulated on official University social media accounts, asserted that “the incendiary language used by this faculty member was inappropriate,” while expressing support for the police. “Faculty members exercising those [free speech] rights do not speak on behalf of the university,” added Paz and Lejuez, leaving Hayward in the lurch. Their statement, issued with full knowledge of the harassment and threats to Prof Hayward, was a public capitulation to the Suffolk County Police and a chilling rebuke of a faculty member’s right to free speech.
Dr. Hayward was neither out of line nor out of her depth in posing the questions that she did. To the contrary, as a PhD-trained scholar of social welfare, topics like wellness checks and encounters between law enforcement and at-risk individuals are squarely within her professional purview. As a teacher and researcher, she has no higher obligation than to ask pertinent questions of concern in her field. And as a private citizen, she has every right to ask whether police use of force is justified. Indeed, as a trained social worker, Anna Hayward’s questioning of how the police handled this incident must be read in light of the code of ethics of the national association of social workers, which requires that “social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of and discrimination against” all marginalized groups, including on the basis of “mental or physical ability”.
Anna Hayward’s comments also occur on the heels of a recent (December 2022) Newsday investigation of the deaths of mentally ill and disabled people at the hands of the Suffolk County police force, and the department’s cover-up of the circumstances of these unfortunate deaths. The Suffolk County Police Department was recently sued by the NYCLU (September 2022) for wrongfully withholding records about police misconduct. Moreover, we know that the Suffolk County Police Department is currently fighting a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the police department has subjected present and former Latino residents of Suffolk County to discriminatory policing.
Finally, Dr. Hayward’s comments also must be viewed in the context of a national crisis in policing. According to the Washington Post database on police shootings, one thousand and ninety people have been shot and killed by police in the past 12 months. Nationally, statistics show that the victims of police shootings are disproportionately Black and Latinx. As it stands, 2022 represents the highest number of people killed by police since the Washington Post started to gather statistics in 2016. It is important to note that the Post started this project because many local police departments were not transparent and refused to provide statistics and information about deaths to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, despite the directives of law.
We also know that in the United States people with mental illness and disability face greater risks of shooting and death in their interactions with law enforcement (e.g. here and here). In this context, it is unsurprising that Attorney General Letitia James has announced that her office will be investigating the December 28th Long Island incident. Indeed, it is because of the history of police misconduct in New York and nationally that such an investigation is required by law. We support all efforts to investigate and reflect on this tragedy in ways that value the life of the deceased, Mr. Enrique Lopez, as well as the lives of the two injured police officers. Unfortunately, the vitriolic response to Anna Hayward’s questions by the Suffolk County PBA, is part of an ongoing effort to silence those who challenge the idea of that some lives are publicly valued more than others. The notion that civilians would be silenced for questioning the circumstances surrounding lethal use of force by our police should be frightening to us all.
It is important to recognize that the attempt to silence Dr Hayward is part of a movement in this country that seeks to thwart scholarship that might challenge powerful institutions, including police unions. The fact that our University would capitulate so readily in this case will have a chilling impact on the ability of our faculty and students to conduct research. As long as the police have so much power that they can silence dissent even from a reputable university, there is no reason to expect that individual officers will stop behaving as if they are above the law.
Signed (in Alphabetical order):
Abena Asare, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University
Nerissa S. Balce, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University
Robert Chase, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University
Josh Dubnau, Professor, Stony Brook University
Jeffrey Heinz, Professor, Stony Brook University
Liz Montegary, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University
Benjamin Tausig, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University