Harming a police officer is already a crime under federal law, and all 50 states have laws that enhance penalties for doing so.
But a new bill modeled after a federal hate crime statute would make it a crime to intentionally target a law enforcement officer based on his “actual or perceived status” as one.
Republican and Democrat sponsors of The Protect and Serve Act say its goal is to protect law enforcement officers from ambushes and violence for simply being a police officer. Opponents of the bill, introduced Tuesday, say its language effectively designates any violence against officers a federal hate crime and perpetuates a false narrative of a “war on police.”
“The Protect and Serve Act of 2018 makes clear that no criminal will be able to escape justice when he singles out and assaults those who put on the badge every day to keep us safe,” Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said in a statement. “These heinous, cowardly assaults are an attack not just on law enforcement, but on the rule of law.” Hatch’s office did not respond to requests for comment over criticism of the bill.
The bill has the support of major law enforcement groups including the Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Organizations and the National Sheriffs’ Association, who say law enforcement is facing increased attacks. The bill’s sponsors cite a Department of Justice report on police ambushes, which shows a downward trend through the 1990s and 2000s until the late 2000s and early 2010s, when the numbers trended slightly higher, according to the report.
“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.
“NAPO has long been fighting to establish stricter penalties for those who harm or target for harm law enforcement officers. NAPO strongly believes that increased penalties make important differences in the attitudes of criminals toward public safety officers, and ensure protection for the community.”
Two versions of the bill were introduced Tuesday in the House and Senate. Each includes a maximum sentence of 10 years for causing serious bodily injury and a potential life sentence for killing or trying to kill an officer. The Senate version includes the specific provision that makes it a crime to knowingly cause bodily injury or attempt to do so “because of the actual or perceived status of the person as a law enforcement officer.”
Its sponsors said in a press release that the proposal is modeled after the federal hate crime law named for murder victims Matthew Shepard, who was targeted for being gay, and James Byrd Jr., who was killed for being black. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act makes it a federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury to someone because of the victim’s “actual or perceived” race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Opponents of the Protect and Serve Act, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called on the Senate to oppose the bill.
The organizations said the bill wrongly extends hate crimes protections to a group that does not need them because they are not vulnerable to bias or discrimination in the same manner as people of color and other historically marginalized communities. And they called it superfluous in light of existing federal and state laws.
“Hate crime protections are intended to aid prosecution of crimes that are historically under-charged and are typically enacted when law enforcement or prosecutors lack the will, capacity, or legal remedies to prosecute offenses committed against certain individuals or groups,” the organizations said in an open letter.
“There is no record to suggest that prosecutors are unwilling or unable to charge individuals with crimes against law enforcement. In fact, crimes against police officers are treated as among the most heinous criminal acts, given the high degree of culpability and punishment attached to such crimes.”
In a time of increased scrutiny of officer-involved shootings of people of color, the groups warned that the bill could further erode relations.
“Rather than focusing on policies that address issues of police excessive force, biased policing, and other police practices that have failed these communities, the Protect and Serve Act’s aim is to further criminalize,” the letter said, expressing concern that the measure “ultimately threatens public safety and undermines the work of law enforcement.”