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Anti-police violence as hate crime: Do officers need more legal cover?

The National Fraternal Order of Police has requested federal hate-crime protections for police officers. But some legal experts question whether such protections are necessary.

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    New York Police Department officers stand in a line before they search the site of a shooting in the Bronx borough of New York Jan. 6. Two New York plainclothes policemen were shot and wounded while responding to an armed robbery Monday night, officials said. Unlike the attack two weeks ago in which two uniformed policemen were shot dead as they sat in their patrol car, police said there were no signs the two officers shot on Monday had been specifically targeted.
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Feeling under siege by protesters and facing a spike in deadly ambush attacks, America’s men and women in blue are seeking extra federal hate-crime protections from those who they say want to do them harm.

“Right now, it’s a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), in a letter to Congress and President Obama on Monday.

The FOP proposal comes in direct response to protests over several high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police. It also comes on the heels of a spike in ambush killings of police officers, including the Dec. 20 murder of two NYPD officers by a man who espoused anti-police feelings on social media. About 1 in 5 non-accidental officer deaths since 2004 were ambush-related, and 2014 saw a sharp uptick in the number of ambush deaths, according to an annual report released in December.

The last time Congress extended hate crime protections to a group was in 2009, when it added transgendered and homosexual Americans to those covered by such laws. It’s far from clear whether anyone in Congress will take the FOP up on its proposal to expand such federal protections to police. Rep. Steve King, (D) of New York, has in the past taken up pro-union legislation. And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said a policing taskforce convened by President Obama will consider the proposal. 

But legal experts expressed skepticism about whether the proposal would prove effective – or is needed. Under current federal law, police officers already enjoy additional protections, they say: Killing a police officer is a first-degree murder charge, carrying with it the prospect of the death penalty.

The FOP’s proposal comes after months of growing tensions between police and minority communities, as well as an escalating conflict between the NYPD and City Hall that has included officers heckling the mayor and turning their backs on him in public, as well as a work slowdown by the nation’s largest police force. 

That tension was on display at an officer’s funeral Sunday, when hundreds of policemen once again turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio – disregarding the explicit request of Police Commissioner William Bratton that they not do so. Union head Patrick Lynch has claimed Mr. de Blasio’s criticisms of the department have fueled anti-police sentiments, and said that the mayor had “blood on his hands” after the murders of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Dec. 20.

The problem with extending hate-crime protections to police, says Jeannine Bell, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in policing and hate crimes, is that hate-crime legislation by itself has shown little deterrent effect. Moreover, she adds, such laws are mostly used to call attention to low-level assaults and other behavior that might otherwise not get investigated or even prosecuted.

Conversely, killing a police officer is a first-degree murder charge. Even in states without the death penalty a cop-killer could face death if prosecuted under federal law, Professor Bell says.

Indeed, the decision by grand juries not to indict the officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York has reinforced a sense among many Americans that police already enjoy institutional protections that an average citizen does not, Bell says.

The hate crime proposal is “unsurprising, given the rhetoric [around the killing of the two NYPD officers],” says Bell, author of “Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime.” “All of the discussion of reforms makes [police] feel as if they are under fire, and they feel under fire and vulnerable anyway.”

The fact is, she adds, “one of the things that Ferguson has brought to light is police behavior that is happening around the country, where my sense is that it doesn’t reflect so much an increase in bad behavior [but instead is] an acknowledgement that this has been happening all the time.”

To be sure, Americans routinely rank local police as one of society’s most trustworthy institutions.

Yet the proliferation of hateful speech against police officers on social-media platforms has had the NYPD trying to define what constitutes an online “threat,” Danny Cevallos, a CNN legal analyst, writes

Perhaps because it’s difficult to tell when someone is mentally disturbed or just acting like a troll, such threats can seem more menacing than, say, the heyday of gangster rap, when the group NWA had the hit, “F*** Tha Police,” Mr. Cevallos writes.

In the wake of the Dec. 20 murders, police have arrested at least nine people for making social media or phone threats against officers in New York City.

“We regularly hear complaints about how [police] are getting superior protection under the law than the rank and file citizen, but … highly visible public figures attract more venom than the anonymous Joe on the streets, with an exponentially larger chance that one of the crackpots may actually be violent,” writes Jazz Shaw, a blogger at the conservative Hot Air blog.

Yet creating a new hate-crime category for police sends the “wrong message,” Mr. Shaw writes in a subsequent post. “It reinforces the idea that some lives are worth more than others, and that unequal protection under the law is acceptable.”

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