Civil rights groups fight federal bill that would give hate crime protections to cops

Police groups backing the bill underscore what they say has become a new threat: ambush-style attacks.

Civil rights groups are calling on Congress to reject legislation that would treat violence against police officers as hate crimes, saying it perpetuates the idea that there’s a war on police.

The bill, dubbed the “Protect and Serve Act,” was introduced Tuesday by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and seeks to make police officers a protected class, using language borrowed from federal hate crime law.

Advertisement

Under the law, intentional efforts to injure someone “because of the actual or perceived status of the person as a law enforcement officer” would be considered a federal crime. Anyone who engages in such efforts would be subject to a 10-year prison sentence.

Groups including ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Watch (headed by police reform advocate and former DOJ Civil Rights director Vanita Gupta), the NAACP Legal Defense Fund., and Human Rights Watch wrote a letter urging senators to reject the bill.

“Extending hate crimes protections to law enforcement officers is profoundly inappropriate and misguided,” the letter states. “Hate crimes laws are intended to extend protection to historically persecuted groups… law enforcement officers are not a historically persecuted group.”

The letter also raised concerns that “Protect and Serve” was a knee-jerk political reaction to the growing movement for police accountability and reform, or an extension of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, which started gaining steam in 2016 as a counterpoint to “Black Lives Matter.” Last year, building on that pro-police sentiment, lawmakers in 14 states introduced a total of 32 bills that sought to ramp up penalties for people who hurt police officers.

Though being a cop is, statistically speaking, still a dangerous job, according to data by the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, it’s less dangerous than it used to be.

Advertisement

There were 129 law enforcement fatalities in 2017, a 10 percent drop from the previous year, making it the second-safest year for law enforcement since 1959. About a third of those deaths were by gunfire. But 2018 could tell a different story: There’s been 28 gunfire-related police deaths since January, a 75 percent increase over the same period last year.

The police groups backing the bill underscore what they say has become a new threat: ambush-style attacks. In 2016, ambush killings of police officers hit a 10-year high with 21 victims, driven by two mass-casualty incidents: one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which left three officers dead, and one in Dallas that left five officers dead. That dropped to eight victims last year. Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, cited an October 2015 Department of Justice report that documented an increase in ambush-style attacks from 1990 to 2013.

“This bill is critical, as there is a serious and growing trend of armed attacks on law enforcement officers,” said William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, in a statement.

But civil rights groups say it’s unnecessary, given that there are existing federal laws that specifically protect police officers. For example, killing a law enforcement officer – state, local, or federal – can get you life in prison or the death penalty. In all 50 states, there are laws that enhance penalties for individuals who hurt or kill police officers.

“This bill is being contemplated at a time when our country is in the throes of a national policing crisis, with a never-ending stream of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans captured on video,” the letter stated. “Using hate crimes laws that have historically been developed to give protection to people of color from distinct forms of violence, including police violence motivated by prejudice, is a particularly disconnected and non-responsive policy choice.”

According to data compiled by the Washington Post, 987 people were killed by police officers in 2017; 68 of those individuals were unarmed.

Cover image: Officers salute at the funeral of slain New York City Police Officer Miosotis Familia held at World Changers Church New York in Bronx, New York on July 11, 2017. Photo Credit: Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX