Ala. lawmakers consider protecting LEOs under hate crime law

The debate and proposed measures come after 6 on-duty deaths in 2019


John Sharp
Alabama Media Group

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alabama has faced an “exceptionally tough year” for law enforcement with six deaths occurring at the hands of gunmen, as Gov. Kay Ivey noted earlier this month.

Few states had as many tragedies occur to law enforcement while they were on duty. And those that did have a much larger population – California, New York and Texas.

Alabama legislators will debate adding law enforcement to those protected under the state's hate crime law, which could come in conflict with other proposed bills. (Photo/TNS)
Alabama legislators will debate adding law enforcement to those protected under the state's hate crime law, which could come in conflict with other proposed bills. (Photo/TNS)

The latest of the state’s tragedies unfolded Dec. 6 in Huntsville after a Tennessee man with a long history of criminal activity allegedly shot Huntsville Police officer Billy Fred Clardy III in the heart and killed him.

While Huntsville is mourning Clardy’s death, public officials are looking to see if something can be done to ensure that law enforcement doesn’t suffer a repeat of the danger in 2020.

“It’s a tragedy we shouldn’t have to put up with,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

One effort expected to surface in the halls of the State House in Montgomery will occur in February: Adding law enforcement to those protected under the state’s hate crime law.

That effort could collide with a competing political pitch of adding sexual orientation and/or gender identity to Alabama’s hate crime law. Alabama is one of 15 states with a hate crime law that lacks LGBTQ inclusion. Only four states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky – include law enforcement as a protection under their hate crime laws.

“Everyone agrees that it should be a hate crime to shoot a police officer,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and chairman of the Alabama State Senate Judiciary Committee where the hate crime legislation is reviewed. “I don’t know anyone who opposes that. The question is, ‘What gets tacked on?’ Yes, you can find a bipartisan solution.”

The latest proposal will come from state Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, who pitched a similar plan last year to add law enforcement officers as a protected group within the state’s 25-year-old hate crime law. “Unfortunately, we have all too many examples of our law enforcement officers who are being injured and dying at the hands of folks who just don’t have any respect for them,” Elliott said.

Alabama has had a state hate crime law on the books since 1994, that enhances penalties for crimes motivated by someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity or mental or physical disability.

Lawmakers have considered adding law enforcement in previous years, and could have been the first state to do so in 2016. But the bills haven’t advanced out of the Alabama Senate, let alone gone for a full vote before the Alabama House.

William Califf, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said any proposal will be reviewed if it advances out of committee.

“Senator Marsh does believe that law enforcement officers have a very difficult job and that we should do all we can to ensure their safety and he is appreciative of the sacrifices they and their families make, in order to protect our communities,” said Califf.

Elliott’s proposal did pass through the Judiciary Committee last year, but not before the LGBTQ provision was added as an amendment offered up by state Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile.

Figures said she favors “of doing everything we can to protect our law enforcement officials.” But she said she’s unsure if a hate crime law is the right vehicle.

Civil right groups and hate crime scholars also find the addition of a profession to a protected class of citizens, as a wrong approach.

“There are laws on the books with enhanced penalties (for crimes against police,” said Kami Chavis, a professor of law and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law. “If you commit murder in some states (against law enforcement), you will face the death penalty.”

In Alabama, killing a law enforcement while they are on the line of duty is an aggravating factor that is punishable by the death penalty.

Chavis said that adding law enforcement to hate crime laws is more of a “political” tactic that can stir backlash by minority groups that have clashed publicly with police in recent years. The addition of law enforcement officers to existing hate crime laws have occurred in Republican-controlled states and receive the backing from the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” movement, which advocates for law enforcement and is a response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that surfaced about six years ago amid high profile police shootings in minority communities.

“It’s not a way to honor law enforcement or first responders,” said Chavis. “There are ways that are far more meaningful to honor them. Higher pay and better working conditions and hours would boost morale. Let’s focus on that instead of penalty enhancements that are likely not going to be fair.”

Chavis and others also believe the addition of professionals to hate crime law language “detracts” from the original purpose of the laws. Federal hate crime legislation dates to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and protections have long been in place for race, color, and religion. The federal law was most recently expanded by President Barack Obama in 2009, to add the categories of sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crime statistics, has indicated that the number of incidences have increased since the 2016 presidential election. In 2015, there was 71,73 reported victims of hate crimes; in 2018, there were 8,819 victims. Of those, more than 5,100 victims were the result of crimes committed because of someone’s race or ethnicity. There were 1,445 victims based on sexual orientation and 189 on gender identity, according to FBI statistics.

“The experience of law enforcement as a chosen profession is not equal to the history of injustice and harm perpetuated against people for their race, gender, ethnicity, disability or religion,” said Dillon Nettles, policy analyst with the ACLU of Alabama.

Elliott believes that law enforcement deserves the additional protected status, and that policing is more than a profession.

Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack supports the legislation and also wants lawmakers to address a “mental health crisis in our state” that he believes is correlated to crimes against law enforcement.

“The intentional killing of a law-enforcement officer without any provocation should be considered as a hate crime because that is exactly what it is,” said Mack.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund doesn’t track hate crimes directed at police, but it does track police deaths which have been trending downward in the past year. Nationwide, there has been 119 law enforcement fatalities in the line of duty or about 22% fewer than in 2018.

Andrea Edmiston, director of governmental affairs with the National Association of Police Organizations, said that officer line-of-duty statistics often do not show the full picture of violence being perpetrated against officers.

Referencing a January report from the Office of Community Orientated Policy Services (COPS), Edmiston said that of those police officers shot in 2018, 51 officers died from injuries and 200 survived. She said that 28 officers were shot during “ambushes or premeditated, calculated assaults.”

“NAPO has long supported policies that would increase crimes for deliberate, targeted attacks on law enforcement officers,” she said. “We also advocate that federal, state and local governments must aggressively use the laws already on the books to punish these crimes, whether or not additional actions are taken by legislatures.”

Hate crime law provisions vary from state to state. Of the 45 states with these laws, most designate race, religion and national origin as motivations for hate crimes. The District of Columbia and West Virginia include political affiliation within their hate crime statutes. Other states, like Maine and Maryland, protect the homeless within their hate crime laws.

Louisiana became the first state to add law enforcement to its hate crime law in 2016, followed up by Texas and Mississippi. Kentucky, one year later, became the fourth state to add the law enforcement provision.

“I’m working to get a clean bill (without amendments) and get it to the floor (of the Senate) and have it vote on,” said Elliott. “We do owe our law enforcement officers a straight up or down vote on this one.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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