US towns call for hate crime protections for cops. Helpful?

A national police union is pushing for crimes against police officers to be treated as hate crimes, but experts say such protections may not be effective or necessary.

Dennis Spellman/Reuters
Polly Looper and her son Trace stand with a flag, that is symbolic of a fallen officer, outside the funeral for Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth in Houston, Texas on Sept. 4. The ceremony was attended by more than 10,000 law enforcement officers from Texas and across the United States. Goforth was fatally shot on August 28th as he fueled a patrol car at a Houston-area gas station.

When the police chief in Red Wing, Minn., approached the city council earlier this month asking for their support in gaining federal hate-crime protections for law enforcement, the city council didn’t hesitate.

The small city on the Mississippi River became the second place in the United States to pass a resolution calling for crimes against law enforcement to be prosecuted as hate crimes. The call for such protections is the latest development in a fraught year for law enforcement, which has seen both higher scrutiny over officers' use of lethal force, as well as a series of high-profile fatal ambush attacks against police.

But experts question whether such extra protections are necessary or would help prevent future attacks against police officers. Felonious attacks on police are at near-historic lows. And crimes against police officers are already punished more severely than identical crimes against civilians – both federally and in many states – which is the purpose hate crime protections are designed to serve.

"The primary symbolic value of hate crime legislation historically was extending an extra layer of legal shield over portions of society that had been under-protected, and I don’t think that’s true with law enforcement," says Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

The last time Congress extended hate crime protections was in 2009, when it added transgender and homosexual Americans to those covered by the laws.

Some experts see the calls for expanded protection as at least partly a reaction to the increased scrutiny law enforcement is facing in light of a series of police killings of unarmed men. Those high-profile deaths helped launch the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Memorials for recent slain officers, including a Houston deputy who was killed while pumping gas this summer, have been accompanied by the slogans "Police Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter."

"I do think there’s going to be a lot of traction for this," says Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "I wouldn’t be surprised if these sorts of [resolutions] spread around, because it’s a good way to get leverage against people who are more supportive of Black Lives Matter."

A police push

The National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has been leading the call for police officers to get hate crime protections this year, characterizing recent lethal attacks on police as part of a broader national crisis.

In January, the FOP asked Congress and President Obama to expand hate crime protections for law enforcement officers a few weeks after two New York City police officers were ambushed and murdered by a man who espoused anti-police feelings on social media. In late August, the organization repeated the call after the execution-style murder of a sheriff’s deputy in Houston.

"In the last few years, ambush attacks aimed to kill or injure law enforcement officers have risen dramatically," said FOP National President Chuck Canterbury in early September. "All of these officers died because of the uniforms they were wearing."

The cities that have passed resolutions supporting the FOP’s proposal have used similar language. Both the Red Wing City Council and the Warren County, Ohio, Board of County Commissioners described a "violent surge against police."

Red Wing has since voted to reconsider its motion of support, citing the division it has created in the community. But two other Minnesota towns – Cambridge and Austin – passed similar resolutions earlier this week.

"It seems like it’s been a little bit of an open season on law enforcement," said Austin Council Member Steve King, in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

'War on cops'?

Politicians, media, and the police  have described a "war on cops", and the general public seems to agree. A Rasmussen poll from early December found that 58 percent of respondents now believe there is a "war on police," while just 27 percent disagreed.

But statistics suggest otherwise. While there have been some high-profile ambush killings of police officers, including the killings in Houston and New York, the number of officers feloniously killed have been hovering near historic lows in recent years. This year is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers, according to The Washington Post. That's up slightly, but 2013 saw the fewest officer deaths since World War II, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

And if police officers were seeing a spike in lethal attacks, hate crime protections may not be the most effective deterrent, according to Jeannine Bell, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

"There’s no evidence that the [hate crime] legislation in and of itself provides a disincentive for attacks on any group of individuals," she says.

In most jurisdictions, police officers already enjoy enhanced protections. Killing a police officer is already an automatic first-degree murder charge, for example. Other more minor offenses have severe consequences if a police officer is the victim. In Minnesota, a felony assault can result in a five-year prison sentence, but for a felony assault against a police officer the maximum sentence is 20 years, according to the ACLU's Mr. Samuelson.

"There’s no real need for this," he adds.

Protection by profession

Professor Stoughton adds that expanding hate crime laws to include police officers could create a complicated precedent where other people that could be subject to physical attack based on their professions – like teachers, bus drivers, or parking meter attendants – also want an added layer of legal protection.

"I don’t know how you’d draw a principled line between police officers and firefighters, or firefighters and teachers," he says.

Stoughton, who served as an officer in the Tallahassee Police Department for five years, stresses that the ambush killings of police officers need to be taken very seriously.

"But the criminal justice system can take something very seriously without labeling it a hate crime," he adds. "As important as I think policing is, I’m not sure that hate crime legislation is justified to offer additional practical or theoretical benefits."

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