Does it make sense to protect police officers with a law that makes attacking them a hate crime? Red Wing, Minnesota, proposes that attacks on police officers be considered hate crimes. I am not sure this is a good idea nor do I think it is necessary.
I think we need to answer that question by considering both whether such a law is necessary and what motivates it. I will explain the questions I have that give me doubt here.
(My friends who study criminal justice and practice law can help fill the holes in my legal reasoning, but I feel that the tenor of my argument makes sense. So I will proceed.)
First, one has to presume that police officers are a persecuted group. To think otherwise makes the application of hate crime laws to police officers tone deaf and trite.
Are police officers hated and persecuted? No, I do not think so, and I am grateful for that. Of course there are confrontations between the public and the police and the police have been victims of crimes. However I do not believe there is a war on law enforcement. The “war on cops” rhetoric is high, but the facts don’t support it.
The police chief of Red Wing, Roger Pohlman, suggests otherwise. Referring to the 30 police officers killed so far this year in the United States, he says those attacks did not target the person, but targeted “the position and the authority” of police officers. He tells us that now is “a very trying time for law enforcement.”
These are sensitive points to discuss and debate. Simply questioning them will be taken by some people as anti-law enforcement, anti-police. But let’s just ask, why does Chief Pohlman think these crimes against police officers were motivated specifically by hate, particularly hate of police officers and their authority? Might a criminal be trying to escape the law? Perhaps he is reacting out of emotion? Or consider the question this way, does someone get involved in crime because he hates the police and crime is his way to express that hate? I don’t think so. Usually a person robs a bank for the money, not because he hold a prejudice against police officers. In other words, people become criminals and thus implicitly become enemies of law enforcement.
On the other hand, one might also question why anyone would be opposed to anything but the harshest penalty for attacking police officers. Fair question. I do not oppose harsh penalties. Indeed criminals attacking police are dealt with severely and for good reason. However hate crimes — as they are defined today — are different in the way that they add another layer of culpability to an offense. One might be charged with assault, for example, and a federal hate crime for attacking someone based on race. That’s two charges, not one. Let’s take a look at how this might complicate police and public interactions if police become a protected group.
Hate crimes include harassment, verbal abuse, vandalism, and the like. If a police officer is insulted during a protest, is that a hate crime? And if an insult can be criminal, what defines an insult? Is questioning or protesting a police action insulting to police? Could a political poster be judged offensive?
Even writing this post is risky business. Certainly some people will find my thoughts here anti-police and offensive. Just suggesting that there is no war on police offends some. It is a precariously steep slope from expressing these ideas to being judged a foe. It feels dangerously close to the you’re either with us or against us mentality. Indeed there is something about this idea that feels political and manipulative.
In the end I think we need to ask more than whether this sort of legal protection is needed. We also need to ask what motivates it. Is it to protect police because they are threatened by hate or something else. To me it feels like something else. The very act of creating police as a group protected by hate crime laws ipso facto makes them a hated group. That’s wrong. Hate crimes should exist to protect persecuted groups, not to create them.