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After Dallas Shootings, Gov. Abbott Proposes Protecting Cops With Hate Crimes Law

Christopher Connelly/KERA News
Dallas police officers mark the passing of one of five fellow law enforcement officers killed when a gunman opened fire in downtown Dallas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he wants to classify attacks on police as hate crimes. The idea has the backing of law enforcement groups, but it’s raised some concerns among advocates for hate crimes legislation.

Charley Wilkison says police officers feel like they have a target on their backs. He’s the head of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. That feeling, he says, started long before cops were gunned down in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“Texas has lost the most officers in the line of duty of any state in America, and that is always the case,” Wilkison says.

So Wilkison was pleased when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he’ll pursue legislation to strengthen penalties for crimes that target law enforcement officers. The governor’s calling it the Police Protection Act, and it would also extend hate crime protections to law enforcement officers. Wilkison says that makes sense.

“When they enter their day of work, their night or work, to face the violent underbelly of Texas that most of us never have to see, they risk everything,” Wilkison says. “And if you’re after a police officer, because they’re a police officer, I guess that’s a hate crime.”

Cheryl Drazin from the Anti-Defamation League disagrees. Hate crime laws were intended to cover immutable characteristics, she says – things people can’t change such as race, gender and religious background. Occupations are, by definition, changeable. And the laws are designed to protect marginalized groups.

“There is no evidence that prosecutors anywhere in the country, or Texas particularly, are failing to vigorously investigate and prosecute crimes against police,” Drazin says.

In May, Louisiana became the first state to extend hate crime protections to law enforcement. Similar bills have been proposed in several other states. Drazin says the Anti-Defamation League is not anti-police – the group works extensively with law enforcement, she says – it’s just that these so-called Blue Lives Matter laws are the wrong vehicle to protect police. She thinks they’ll actually make it harder for prosecutors to go after people who target cops.

“They’d have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the perpetrator attacked the officer, and that that act was committed because the person was a police officer,” Drazin says. “That additional burden, that specific intent, would make prosecutions more difficult, and not easier.”

In a statement announcing the Police Protection Act, Gov. Abbott said “Texas must send a resolute message that the state will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities.” Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Texas, like most other states, already has sentence enhancements for crimes against public servants. For instance, a homicide becomes a capital offense if the victim is a police officer. Still, murders of cops are relatively rare. Assault charges, however, are not. In addition to the hate crime enhancements, the governor wants stiffer penalties for assaults on law enforcement. And assault doesn’t necessarily mean hauling off and slugging someone; it could just mean a threat.

“There has to be an imminent threat of causing physical injury, and there can be a bit of interpretation as to what that means,” says Meghan Ryan, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. “Maybe it takes less in this sort of climate that there was a threat, an imminent threat against a police officer than it would have a year ago.”

Most criminal cases never even make it to court, though. Classifying crimes targeting cops as hate crimes could give prosecutors more leverage, Ryan says, which could lead to more plea bargains because fewer defendants would be willing to risk a trial. Already, 95 percent of criminal convictions in Texas come from plea bargains.

As for the law’s potential to deter crimes against police officers, Ryan says the jury’s still out.

“We don’t really know, scientifically, what sort of effect this has on deterrence,” she says. “But there’s a concern with deterrence that the type of people that we’re dealing with – criminal offenders – aren’t really rational, so their cost-benefit analysis differs from ordinary citizens.”

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.