Violence Against Police Should Not Be Prosecuted as Hate Crime

In the wake of the murder of two New York City police officers, the National Fraternal Order of Police sent a letter to the White House and Congress asking that "bias attacks" against police be prosecuted more harshly through hate crime laws.
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Basic logic and some cautionary examples from Russia show why anti-police attacks aren't hate crimes.

In the wake of the murder of two New York City police officers, the National Fraternal Order of Police, a union with more than 300,000 members, sent a letter to the White House and Congress asking that "bias attacks" against police should be prosecuted more harshly through hate crime laws.

It's a bad idea.

Historically, hate crime statutes were adopted and expanded to protect the most vulnerable groups in the U.S. The victims of hate crime have one thing in common: their very identity is under threat and their ability to seek justice is minimal. With the adoption of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, the list of protected characteristics grew to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. A professional occupation is not among the biases because it is not a fundamental or core characteristic shared by the individuals victimized by hate crime violence.

Police officers killed in line of duty are remembered as heroes. In 2013, for example, there were 105 line-of-duty deaths, including 30 officers who were brought down by guns. All of these incidents have been recorded, investigated, and condemned by the public and its elected representatives. There is no need to enhance this system through legislative efforts like hate crime laws, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable groups, attacks against whom are often unreported or under-recorded.

Attacks on police are a serious problem and is treated as such in the U.S. If the killer who had ambushed officers Ramos and Liu in Bed-Stuy was able to escape the scene of his cold-blooded crime, there would no doubt be a major investigation staffed by hundreds of NYC's finest detectives, and if the killer was found, he'd get no sympathy in the courtroom and receive the highest possible sentence under NY State Law; and rightfully so. An act of violence against law enforcement already receives the highest level of attention through investigation and prosecution.

Hate crime laws are a relatively new concept in global lawmaking. Some countries in Europe have more advanced systems of legislation and data collection than the U.S.; most of the world trails behind.

The question of whether or not to prosecute acts against "a social group" as bias crimes has been deliberated by many national parliaments across the world. Most have rejected the logic that law enforcement should be protected through hate crime laws. One international guide on legislation -- produced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation's democracy and human rights branch (ODIHR) -- argues against treating violence with an anti-police bias as hate crimes, pointing out that "if a law includes protected characteristics that are too far away from the core concept of hate crime it may no longer be seen as a hate crime law."

In courtrooms, things get more complicated. In Russia, for example, courts have used hate crime statutes in cases involving an "anti-police bias." The most prominent of these cases involved Savva Terentyev, a young blogger who defamed the Russian police as stupid and ignorant, leading to a lengthy criminal case in which Terentyev was charged with "inciting hatred or enmity" toward a social group, the police. Fearing a two-year prison sentence, the blogger left Russia and had successfully sought asylum in Europe.

It's not fully settled if the police are a social group protected under hate crime statutes in Russia. After Terentyev's case, many judges rejected such argumentation. While Pussy Riot went to jail for inciting hatred against religious believers by singing and dancing in a cathedral, the feminist collective's precursors from the Art Group Voina were able to avoid the charges of targeting a social group in their Palace Revolution stint, when they overturned empty police cars in Saint Petersburg. Russia's Supreme Court went on to affirm that prosecuting acts or speech against the police or the government was a bad idea.

Still, Russia's prosecution of anti-police speech and acts under hate crime statutes should serve as a cautionary tale for the White House and Congress as they deliberate the request by the National Fraternal Order of Police. But most importantly, there are more meaningful ways to make the police feel protected. Expanding hate crime laws to include an "anti-police bias" isn't one of them.

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