Stony Brook University professor R. Anna Hayward became the subject of articles in The New York Post and The Daily Mail after leaving comments that have since been deleted under a Stony Brook Medicine Instagram post questioning the Suffolk County Police Department’s (SCPD) conduct. The post showed an image of Stony Brook hospital staff and police leaders at a press conference about the recovery of two cops injured in an altercation.

The altercation, which started as a wellness check at a Medford home for mentally disabled people, ended with 56-year-old Enrique Lopez shot dead by Suffolk County police after Lopez stabbed two officers on Dec. 22, 2022. The incident is being investigated by the New York Attorney General’s office.

Hayward’s comments on the post read as follows: “This was a wellness check — why didn’t they de-escalate the situation? Why did a man have to die?” and, “What about the man they murdered?” The New York Post described her comments as “brazen” while the Daily Mail wrote that she “branded police officers MURDERERS.”

The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association (PBA) tweeted that Hayward’s comments were “hateful,” urging Stony Brook University to denounce them.

Stony Brook University did just that, immediately issuing a statement condemning Hayward’s remarks at the request of the Suffolk County PBA. “We appreciate the members of law enforcement who work to keep our community safe,” the university wrote. “The comments made online were from what appears to be a faculty member’s private account that is not affiliated with Stony Brook University.”

Hayward’s “anti-police bias,” as the Suffolk County PBA wrote, led to threats on her life and family. Her home address, personal phone number and email were made public, according to Allegra de Laurentiis, a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University. At a University Senate meeting on April 3, de Laurentiis explained that Dr. Hayward and her family had to shelter-in-place to protect their safety — a fact that the university was fully aware of when they issued their statement denouncing Hayward’s remarks and emphasizing Stony Brook’s gratitude for the SCPD.

“What does it mean to live in a society where the police dictate what we’re allowed to say?” Crystal Fleming asked at a teach-in called “Policing Free Speech at Stony Brook” held on March 23 in response to the backlash Hayward faced. Fleming is a Stony Brook University professor of sociology and Africana studies.

Suffolk County knows the answer to this question. An article from 2021 by The New York Times dubbed it “The County Where Cops Call The Shots.” 

SCPD has a long-standing history of corruption and violence, especially against people of color and disabled people. The police department is also one of the highest-paid in the entire country. SCPD officers generally make upwards of $200,000 — in some cases, up to $314,461. This funding enables the SCPD to do two things that ensure their hold on power: fund a multi-million dollar super PAC that helps them elect the candidates they favor and pay out settlements to victims or families affected by police brutality and misconduct.

SCPD’s financial and political grip led to the PBA calling for Stony Brook University — a federally-funded institution — to condemn Hayward’s comments, resulting in immediate action by the Office of the Provost against Hayward. 

The SCPD’s influence on the county has also led to more sinister cases of power abuses. 

Daniel McDonell, a 40-year-old man with bipolar disorder, was arrested for a misdemeanor in May 2011. One day after being taken into custody, he was killed by officers in his cell. McDonell’s mother gave his prescribed antipsychotic medications to the police, but they refused to administer them. McDonell began suffering a psychotic episode in his cell, screaming and begging for police to allow him his medication. Several officers entered his cell in order to transport him to a hospital. McDonell was tasered and forced to the ground with a riot shield, where he was then rendered immobile by plastic handcuffs and legcuffs resembling zip ties. He was held down until he died of asphyxiation. The SCPD paid his family $2.25 million in a 2013 settlement. 

Two years after McDonell’s death, a similar situation happened again. Dainell Simmons, a 29-year-old man with autism, lived in a group home for mentally disabled people until he was killed by SCPD officers in 2013. Employees were instructed to call his mother when he became agitated. Instead, they called the SCPD. Simmons was calm by the time the police had arrived, but when police insisted that he be handcuffed for transport to the hospital, he ran into another room and dove to the floor where he laid face down, holding his hands underneath his chest. Simmons was pepper sprayed and tasered numerous times, then immobilized by handcuffs and legcuffs. Police held him down for an estimated nine minutes until he died of asphyxiation, like McDonell. The SCPD paid his mother $1.85 million in a 2018 settlement.

The consequences of both of these incidents were minimal for the policemen responsible. The ten officers involved in McDonell’s death were charged with wrongdoing. The sergeant, lieutenant, lead detective and nine officers involved received promotions in the years following. The supervising sergeant and two of the officers involved in Simmons’s death were promoted as well. Only eight years later, in 2019, did the SCPD implement Crisis Intervention Training, a 40-hour course designed to better equip policemen with training for handling mentally disabled people.

The SCPD’s longstanding history of mishandling and brutalizing mentally disabled people contextualizes Hayward’s questions. Did Lopez have to die, or should the situation have been de-escalated — like in the cases of McDonell and Simmons? SCPD’s history of brutality and misconduct also makes clear the severity of the implications of the university’s obedience to the Suffolk County PBA, and the effects of obedience on academic freedom. Hayward’s safety and life were threatened when the Office of the Provost chose to rebuke her comments in the face of doxing and death threats, but freedom of speech in academia was threatened too.

Faculty members felt strongly about the passing of a resolution that would protect free speech and academic freedom at the university presented by de Laurentiis at the University Senate meeting in early April. A speaker in favor of the resolution noted, “we need to be upsetting without the intrusion of the police and the police state.” The resolution received a 91% pass rate, meaning that Stony Brook University will have to take action upon it. 

Carl Lejuez, Stony Brook University’s executive vice president and provost, felt differently. He confirmed at the University Senate meeting that the Office of the Provost will not be retracting its statement regarding Hayward’s comments, despite pressure from numerous faculty members who believe that this was a denigration of academic freedom and free speech. Lejuez underscored how he feels about maintaining the university’s statement. He remarked, “that is something that we feel very strongly about.”

Correction 5/21/2023: Phrasing was corrected to more clearly reflect that the exposure of Dr. Hayward’s personal information was discussed at the April 3 University Senate meeting. This information had been exposed prior to the meeting.

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