The National Fraternal Order of Police has launched a campaign to change federal law to add attacks on police as a hate crime. In a letter to President Barack Obama and Congress, the powerful union cites the murders of two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. The demand would treat an attack based on status as the same as an attack based on race. Given the Administration’s expedited investigations of civil rights violations involving deaths caused by police officers in Missouri and New York, the change would create an interesting situation where both future suspects and officers would be arguably protections under federal hate crime laws.
Currently, the federal law states that it is a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, insisted that “[r]ight 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.”
Many of us have been alarmed by the intense anti-police rhetoric that has arisen in some protests, including chants for more dead police officers. Despite this sympathy, however, the addition to a status as a hate crime category raises some difficult questions about the expansion of this law, which has been viewed as troubling in many circumstances by civil libertarians.
There have been an alarming increase in the shooting of police officers in the last year. However, there are already ample criminal provisions addressing such crimes, including crimes specifically covering attacks on police offices or fire fighters. Adding a new category to the hate crimes statute is unlikely to offer any additional deference when you already have these laws as well as standard charges for murder etc. The question is whether we want to continue to expand this law to cover attacks allegedly made on the basis of status. There are also questions of what the requisite proof would be in such cases.
There is also an obvious concern that any assault on a police officer could be potentially classified as a hate crime. Citizens often voice contempt or anger at police. In some confrontations, we have seen even the slightest forms of assault charged under existing laws. Some of those cases could not be enhanced with a hate crime charge. Defense attorneys have long complained that prosecutors over-charge such cases in deference to their colleagues in police departments. There is often pressure to use every possible charge against someone who is accused of assaulting an officer. There is a danger that free speech rights could be implicated in such prosecutions as well as other protections.
While there will be powerful political pressures for Congress to yield to this demand, it is worth considering such questions before taking such step. First and foremost is the question of whether such a change is really needed in light of existing laws. There may be good arguments for the inclusion to be made but I hope that there is not a rush to take action due to our collective anger over these horrific attacks on police officers. This is a question that raises some novel questions about how such crimes are defined and proven.
What do you think?