Republican state lawmakers in Alabama have identified a vulnerable class that they claim needs special protections: police officers.
"Everyone agrees that it should be a hate crime to shoot a police officer," said state Sen. Cam Ward (R–Alabaster), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The legislature will seek to make that position official in February when it considers state Sen. Chris Elliott's (R–Daphne) proposal to add law enforcement to the list of groups protected by the state's 1994 hate crime legislation. "I don't know anyone who opposes that," Ward told AL.com.
Except, there are many people who oppose modern hate crime laws. In 2010, the liberal writer Jesse Lerner wrote an excellent historical critique of contemporary hate crime laws for Dissent, noting that early models of hate crime legislation focused "on the deprivation of constitutional rights, rather than on the identity of the victim." In recent decades, Lerner writes, legislators have sought to redefine hate crimes "on the basis of the victim's identity, rather than on the victim's equality under the law."
Indeed, an offender faces a lengthier sentence in most states today if his or her actions were seemingly motivated by heinous bias against someone's gender, race, religion, and/or disability. To the distaste of many Republicans, congressional Democrats have pushed to expand those protections to include LGBTQ identity. Yet most offenses for which a hate crime enhancement is applicable (or being sought) are already illegal activities.
Alabama Republicans used to understand this and were able to resist writing additional criminal enhancements into state law. Now they're threatening to open the floodgates all the wider by extending hate crime enhancements to an entire profession. Where will that end?
We can look to Louisiana, which was the first state to protect cops under similar legislation. The law has since been used to classify both resisting arrest and shouting slurs at cops as hate crimes. The latter has also happened multiple times in Pennsylvania.
Hate crime laws seek to enhance punishments for offenders who attack a person or their property based on specific aspects of their identity; is the same crime committed against a person whose identity is incidental to the offense not as bad? By punishing ideological and religious violence, we are treating agnostic violence—or violence motivated by an unprotected aspect of a person's identity—as less bad. There is potential for abuse in that approach, as evidenced by what's happening in Louisiana and Pennsylvania; but in a more subtle way, it erodes equality before the law.
Alabama lawmakers cite the murder of officer Billy Fred Clardy III as reason enough to act. But the data here actually cuts against Republicans' stated goals. The vast majority of violent encounters experienced by cops are not motivated by ideological hatred for the police, but are tied to the very nature of the job they signed up for. What's more, murders of police officers are at record lows.
It seems that Republicans in Alabama, who once challenged the idea that any group should have their rights elevated due to their identity, have learned to demand it when it's politically expedient.