Chief: Zoom attack is not classified as a computer or hate crime

Racial slurs and crude remarks that marred a recent Town Board meeting could not be classified as a computer or hate crime, Southold police Chief Martin Flatley said.

Southold Town police consulted with Suffolk County police and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office after the remarks, which included a death threat, appeared on Zoom at the Jan. 4 Town Board work session. A similar incident at a Dec. 20 Anti-Bias Task Force meeting had also been reported to police.

At Tuesday’s work session, Chief Flatley told the Town Board that a detective has spoken with the county police computer and hate crime units. Because the disrupted meetings were open to the public — the disruptors were there legally — and after viewing the comments made, police determined the incidents could not be classified as a computer or hate crime.

“They have determined that, after reviewing everything that took place and viewing the comments that were made, that this will probably fit into the realm of an incident, not a hate crime,” the chief said. “Certain sections of New York State penal law were not violated.”

Southold police have also spoken with the hate crimes task force at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, which intends to “review and make a final determination” on the case in the coming days. 

“If you want any more specifics or if you have any questions as to why it’s going in this direction, I can certainly reach out and try to get somebody from the hate crimes section here or from the DA’s office hate crimes task force,” the chief said. “It’s still being held as an open investigation until we get a final determination from the attorney’s office.”

Chief Flatley — who noted that there have been previous breaches at virtual town meetings and other municipalities have similarly faced “Zoom bombing” incidents — said a detective has also spoken with IT director Lloyd Reisenberg about settings and administrative controls on meetings.

Mr. Reisenberg, who was present at the work session, said Zoom administrators should make sure the chat and Q&A functions are turned off at public meetings, allowing comment only via the platform’s “raise hand” function. He emphasized that administrators need to check the settings before each meeting, just in case. 

Town Board members seemed to agree with the proposed measure. The board questioned whether the chat and Q&A functions can be permanently turned off and asked for townwide training sessions on how to monitor Zoom settings and remove disruptive audience members.

Mr. Reisenberg said he’s sent several emails over the past years with links and videos on how to manage Zoom settings, although he’s happy to do so again. The chat and Q&A functions can be turned off, but he does not know of a way to disable the features permanently.

“I think that the onus really needs to be put on the person, before they start that meeting, when they do that practice session, check your settings. Make sure they’re good,” he said. 

He added that town policy could dictate that Zoom administrators must know how to turn off the chat and Q&A functions, and how to disconnect audience members behaving inappropriately. He also noted that meeting hosts may not notice the chat right away. 

“The problem is, the people that host these meetings, some compassion on their side too, because they’re trying to pay attention to the meeting,” he said. “They might be the secretary for the committee. They’re trying to take notes.” 

Chief Flatley said he would share the DA office’s determination with the Town Board and offered to come back for further discussion. Town Board members said they’d like to invite the town Anti-Bias Task Force to future conversations about the incidents and keep the meetings open to the public.

“I’m for that, because we’ve talked about transparency and I want to try to be as transparent as we can and I also feel that’s a valuable conversation for our community,” said Town Board member Brian Mealy, who is liaison to the Anti-Bias Task Force. He said the committee would appreciate a breakdown of the investigation from the police chief.

Mr. Mealy, who is also the first Black person elected to public office in Southold, added that “many people reached out to me thinking it was a direct attack on me. I don’t feel it was a direct attack … But I know people have been deeply hurt about what was said and what’s been done.”

He said the Anti-Bias Task Force is also looking for answers about how the town plans to address the incidents.

“I think it would be valuable to have … somebody from hate crimes come out to explain the restrictions we have on our end of it, with charging somebody,” Chief Flatley responded. “It might make it a bit clearer. To the public it may seem cut and dry, but there are a lot of things, like we can’t go after an IP address or wherever it was used unless we had a crime committed.”

Mr. Mealy read a statement condemning the Zoom incidents on behalf of the Town Board at a regular meeting later that day. 

“The Southold Town Board strongly condemns all forms of bias, racism and hate that seek to disrupt, harm or threaten our community. As such, we are deeply troubled by the recent disturbing incident that occurred on the Zoom live feed of a town hall board meeting on January 4 at 9 a.m. where an individual placed racist and obscene comments and a death threat in the chat. This kind of hatred and vitriol is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our community,” he said. 

The state defines a hate crime as a “traditional offense that is motivated by bias,” he added. “A person commits a hate crime when one of a specified set of crimes is committed, targeting a victim because of a perception or belief about their race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation, or when such an act is commited as a result of that type of perception or belief.”

He emphasized that the safety and well-being of all town citizens are the board’s “utmost priority” and said the town is reviewing internal processing for conducting virtual meetings and public forums to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

“We value the vibrant diversity of our community. All members of our community should be treated with the utmost respect, dignity and equal protection umder the law,” he said. “We wish to express our deepest appreciation to the community organizations who have reached out to communicate their outrage and concern, including the faith-based community and the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force.”

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Mr. Mealy is “far too polite” and further condemned the perpetrators of the incidents.

“Whoever you are and wherever you are, you’ve got no courage and the reality is we’re going to do everything we can to keep you outside of town government because you don’t belong here, you don’t belong in the public domain. Your comments mean nothing. We have no obligation to you with regard to freedom of speech because that is not freedom of speech. That’s just disgusting behavior by somebody who’s got the courage of a keyboard,” he said.