Law & the Courts

Every State Needs Enhanced Penalties for Cop-Killers

Police salute during funeral services for NYPD officer Wenjian Liu, January 2015. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Ambush-style killings of law-enforcements officers require a legislative response, but not new hate-crime laws.

The number of ambush-style killings of law-enforcement officers has increased significantly in recent years. In 2016, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, such killings had risen by 250 percent from the year before and were at their highest level in ten years.

Sergeant Joe Imperatrice, president and founder of Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police organization, thinks new laws are needed to deter such crimes. “There has to be something in place to make people think twice” before they decide to attack a policeman.

On July 5, 48-year-old NYPD officer and mother of three Miosotis Familia was fatally shot in the head while sitting in a marked police car in the Bronx. This crime, allegedly committed by long-time cop-hater Alexander Bonds, was described by a law-enforcement source to the New York Post as a “deliberate cop assassination.”

In 2014, New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in their patrol cars in Brooklyn when gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot them in the head and upper-body at point-blank range before they even had a chance to draw their weapons.

There have been similar crimes in other cities as well, such as the murder last summer of three Baton Rouge police officers by a former Marine sergeant.

Imperatrice founded Blue Lives Matter after the killings of Ramos and Liu. By killing a cop, you exhibit that “you’re targeting a certain [kind of] person, not the person behind that uniform,” he says. “You’re targeting what that uniform stands for.”

Two kinds of approaches have been taken to deter cop-killers: enhanced penalties and hate-crime laws.

Enhanced penalties are harsher punishments imposed when a crime meets certain conditions, for instance being committed with a weapon or by someone with a prior conviction. Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., have enhanced penalties for murder if the victim is a police officer. In some states, murdering a police officer is an aggravating factor that makes the murder punishable by the death penalty. In others, such as Kansas and Tennessee, violent crimes in general against law-enforcement officers warrant higher sentencing.

Hate-crime laws are statutes, present in 45 states and Washington, D.C., that impose harsher penalties for crimes motivated by bias against those with certain characteristics, such as race, religion, gender, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation. Some states now include being a police officer as one of those characteristics. Julia Craven reported in March, at the Huffington Post, that “lawmakers in 14 states have introduced at least 32 bills proposing that members of law enforcement be included in hate crime protections.” Two states, Louisiana and Kentucky, have enacted such legislation.

Intentionally murdering a police officer is an especially heinous crime. When the agents of the state who protect the public are themselves targeted, it is a threat to public order and an attack on the authority of the state. Such crimes ought to be penalized more harshly throughout the entire country.

But the laws establishing those penalties should not be called “hate-crime laws” or be defined in terms of punishing social bias. Though enacted with good intentions, hate-crime laws are in general flawed and should not exist, for a number of reasons.

By enhancing penalties when a crime is motivated by bias, we are penalizing thoughts and not just actions. The same act is treated as worse when carried out with a particular mindset or attitude.

First, hate-crime laws seem to devalue non-protected groups of victims. They suggest, for example, that if a straight white person is murdered, his life is less valuable than the life of a black or gay person who was murdered. Second, hate-crime statutes are put in place to address social wrongs and historical injustices. But it’s not clear why individual criminals, whose acts would be subject to prosecution in any case, should have to answer for a whole society’s guilt. Third, by enhancing penalties when a crime is motivated by bias, we are essentially penalizing thoughts and not just actions. The same act is treated as worse when carried out with a particular mindset or attitude. And fourth, such laws might encourage some people to think of themselves as victims unnecessarily.

Even by the logic of hate-crime laws, the more groups we protect, the less valuable those protections become. If we extended enhanced protections to crimes against all groups, then we would have a level field again, and no group would have special victim status. That is why liberal supporters of hate-crime laws have opposed broadening them to include crimes against police officers.

But such crimes are especially destructive of law and order for reasons that have nothing to do with social victimization, and one can recognize this regardless of one’s view of hate-crime laws. States lacking enhanced penalties for crimes against law-enforcement officers should adopt them, and this should not be a partisan matter.


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Sapna Rampersaud is a former editorial intern for National Review and junior at Harvard University.



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