What Conrad Candelaria and Nate Gentry won’t tell you, and what the Albuquerque Journal apparently doesn’t know, is that crimes committed against police officers already include harsher penalties than other crimes
BY DAVID CORREIA
Hate crimes are bias-motivated crimes committed against individuals who are members of historically oppressed groups, such as racial and religious minorities. The law considers hate crimes differently from other kinds of crimes because – as in the case of a cross burning, for example – they terrorize not just one person but an entire population.
The 1968 Civil Rights Act established the first hate crimes law in the United States when it enhanced penalties for prejudice-related crimes against people victimized because of their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.
Despite significant Republican opposition, the 2009 “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” expanded those protections to include “actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”
Conrad Candelaria, a former Albuquerque police officer and current U.S. marshal, wants to add cops to the list of groups protected under hate crime laws. Police officers “are attacked and killed just because they wear a badge. That is a hate crime,” Candelaria said in August. Earlier this month, Nate Gentry, the Republican majority leader in the New Mexico House of Representatives, agreed with Candelaria and called for police officers to receive hate crime protections.
Gentry’s call came during a news conference where Republican politicians unveiled a series of criminal justice reforms. The recent shooting deaths of an Albuquerque police officer and a 4-year-old girl have shocked a city already dealing with what FBI crime statistics identify as a spike in violent crime.
Republicans want tougher sentencing for violent crimes and the ability to indefinitely detain repeat offenders. Democrats held their own news conference, calling for more money for prosecutors and tougher standards for bail on violent crimes.
There isn’t much the two sides agree on, but even some Democrats also think police should receive hate crime protections.
The Albuquerque Journal thinks so too. “Those who would cut [police officers] down for no other reason than the officers’ commitment to public safety and justice,” the newspaper recently editorialized, “deserve harsher penalties.”
But what Candelaria and Gentry won’t tell you, and what the Journal apparently doesn’t know, is that crimes committed against police officers already include harsher penalties than other crimes.
Consider section 30-22-24 of the New Mexico criminal code:
“Battery upon a peace officer is the unlawful, intentional touching or application of force to the person of a peace officer while he is in the lawful discharge of his duties, when done in a rude, insolent or angry manner. Whoever commits battery upon a peace officer is guilty of a fourth-degree felony.”
In other words, even touching an on-duty police officer, if done in a “rude” manner, is a felony. And in many states, the killing of a police officer is automatically considered first-degree murder, thus guaranteeing the harshest penalty possible.
It’s not an accident that nationwide calls for hate crime protections for police are growing loudest at the same moment communities all over the country are criticizing police for systemic, racialized police brutality.
And it’s no coincidence that calls for special protections for police in New Mexico follow years of public outrage over the unjustified use of lethal force by Albuquerque police.
Remember the “bad apples” theory of police violence? If a cop killed an unarmed person, it was because it was a bad cop. But the “bad apple” theory of police violence doesn’t find much purchase these days.
Federal investigations of local police departments have proliferated over the past few years, and nearly all have found systemic, often racialized, problems with policing in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Seattle, Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Albuquerque and elsewhere.
It’s not a problem of a few bad apples but a rather a deeply and historically institutionalized problem of police brutality. If you read the various U.S. Department of Justice investigations of police departments, you’ll find that the victims of police brutality often are members of groups protected under hate crimes laws.
So, Candelaria and Gentry aren’t completely wrong. When we talk about hate crimes, we should talk about the police. In the police killings of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray and James Boyd, to name just three, the police have looked a lot more like perpetrators of hate crimes than do its victims.
David Correia is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
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