With confidence in police at its lowest nationally in more than two decades, it hasn’t been a good year for law enforcement officers. Saturday, for example, a Dunkin’ Donuts employee said to a police officer in line in Westford, Conn., “He didn’t get the message; we don’t serve cops here.”
But officers around the country received a small boost this week from a quaint Minnesota city called Red Wing.
In a place of no more than 20,000 people, where brick storefronts and Victorian houses dominate the streetscape, the city council has passed a resolution calling on the federal government to classify the injury or killing of police officers as a hate crime, a classification generally defined not by occupation but by race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.
In its “Resolution in Support of Law Enforcement,” the council notes that police officers have recently become the victims of targeted attacks. In closing, council president Dean Hove signs, “Now therefore be it resolved that the City of Red Wing, Minnesota stands together with the Red Wing Police Department and officers nationwide. Together we are united.”
The council also asks members of the Red Wing Police Department to pull over at 11 a.m. every day for the coming month and flash their red and blue lights in honor of the police officers who have lost their lives on the job.
The resolution is in agreement with a charge made by the national Fraternal Order of the Police at the start of this year.
Citing several attacks on police officers in 2014, order president Chuck Canterbury said in a statement, “All of these officers died because of the uniforms they were wearing. They were killed because their murderers had one purpose — to kill a cop.”
His comments came shortly after two on-duty officers in New York City, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot and killed in their squad car by a gunman who had posted on Instagram that his trigger would be aimed at law enforcement.
Nearly a year after the announcement, the notion of making police officers a group protected by hate crime law hasn’t gained much traction. Red Wing is only the second city to come out in support of it.
The notion has its share of fervent critics, with some calling the national organization’s request ironic.
Making policing the first profession to receive a penalty enhancement under hate crimes legislation would “paradoxically, give legal protection to a group that is notorious for perpetrating violence against the very people that hate crime laws were originally intended to protect,” Aaron Miguel Cantu argued in Truthout in January of this year.
Meanwhile, legal experts pointed out that several states already have enhanced laws for crimes against officers: in New Hampshire, killing a member of the police force is punishable by execution.
“Hate crimes against black Americans have had a long history in this country — we didn’t just see a rise of hate offenses against black Americans over a period of a month or two,” Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin told U.S. News earlier this year. “Hopefully the ambushing of police officers will turn out to be a short-term clustering and not some kind of long-term form of hate against the police force in general. We just don’t know that yet.”
But the Fraternal Order of Police’s appeal isn’t so new. They have been lobbying for the change to federal law since before 2009, when hate crime legislation was expanded to include crimes motivated by an individual’s sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity alongside the existing protected categories of race, color, religion, ethnicity and national origin.
This initial push, then, was merely renewed this year. Red Wing’s resolution also follows reports in recent months that police officers have been refused service at establishments in Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas and Philadelphia and at that Dunkin Donuts on Saturday.
But should an escalation of this wrongdoing — a physical attack in lieu of a dismissal — constitute a hate crime?
Legal experts have cautioned that including a voluntary profession in the same category mostly comprised of traits considered immutable would be a slippery slope.
“To include a status [like law enforcement] would open the floodgates of different groups demanding that they also be added to this list,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told U.S. News earlier this year. “The implication could be that the law could be expanded to include a great variety of positions, based on future request.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has tried to make the claim that crimes against them are related to color, too.
“We feel it’s inappropriate to target people because of the color of their skin and it’s inappropriate to target people because of the color of their uniform,” the order’s executive director, James Pasco, told U.S. News in January.
Given tensions surrounding race relations and police brutality across the country, this argument has attracted the support of few prominent politicians. In Red Wing, however, city officials seem to be in agreement.
“I’d like to see the state legislators do the same thing and make this statewide statement and mean it,” council vice president Peggy Rehder told CBS Minnesota.