The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The state where targeting a police officer is a hate crime

At least five Dallas police officers were killed and nine wounded July 7, after a peaceful protest over recent police shootings. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)
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After a Texas sheriff's deputy was murdered at a gas station in suburban Houston last summer, lawmakers across the country cried for action to protect police officers. They've had limited success.

In May, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to make it a hate crime to target police officers. The proposal was largely in response to the Texas killing, and it was fairly controversial when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed the Republican-backed bill into law.

Black Lives Matter proponents, who are critical of police brutality, argued it was unnecessary, since many states already have enhanced penalties on the books for assaulting and/or killing police officers — including Texas, where the murder of a police officer can result in a death penalty sentence. And civil rights experts were concerned the measure would weaken hate crime laws.

Police officers who had formed Blue Lives Matter — a group formed in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement — saw the issue of expanding protections to them much differently. "Symbolically it advises that there is a value to the lives of police officers," former police Lt. Randy Sutton of Las Vegas told CNN. "When you give value, it acts as a deterrent in one sense, but it also is a tool to add extra punishment for the assaults and the crimes against them."

Despite the controversy, similar legislation was considered this year in California, New Mexico, Maryland and New Jersey. The New Jersey resolution is the only one that is still being considered, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures's Richard Williams. Williams said he's seen an uptick in legislation addressing law enforcement more broadly over the past two years. But as state legislatures across the nation wrap up, Louisiana remains the only state with this kind of law on the books.

There's been even less movement on this front in Washington. In September, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) introduced legislation to make the death penalty an option for someone found guilty of specifically targeting a law enforcement officer, firefighter or public official. It has 23 co-sponsors, all Republican.

"I am sick and tired of this narrative across this country that we’re hearing from so many political figures that somehow the police are systemically a bunch of racist rogues," Toomey says in a TV ad promoting the bill.

There's a similar bill in the House with 49 co-sponsors, also all Republican. But despite having a significant chunk of support from Republicans in a Republican-led Congress, both pieces of legislation have sat motionless since being introduced.

It's unclear exactly why these bills haven't moved in the wake of a national debate about police brutality and police protections. Public opinion polling on police endangerment is scarce, though Americans do seem uncertain about the flip side of the debate, the Black Lives Matter movement.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 41 percent of black people said they support the movement "strongly." An additional 24 percent support it "somewhat," for a total of 65 percent. Among whites, 40 percent support it. Meanwhile, a September PBS/Marist poll found a notable 35 percent of Americans see the Black Lives Matter movement advocating violence to make its point.

The statistics don't seem to support the idea there's a war on police. As NPR reported in September, police killed in the line of duty is actually on a downward trend:

But The Washington Post's database of police shootings finds that there have been more officers shot and killed in the line of duty this year than at this point last year.

The Anti-Defamation League has warned expanding hate crimes to police risks "diluting" hate-crime legislation by opening the door to including more groups. (A hate crime is defined as attacking a person specifically because of their identity, like racial or ethnic or religious.)

"Working in a profession is not a personal characteristic, and it is not immutable," Allison Padilla-Goodman with the Anti-Defamation League told CNN.

In the wake of yet another police killing on Texas soil — the deadliest for law enforcement since 9/11 — we'll have to wait and see whether legislation, whether in Washington or in the states, to expand protections to police officers gains any momentum.