Gov. Abbott’s Police Protection Act Is a Well-Intentioned, Slippery Slope

Governor Greg Abbott at a press conference following the shooting in Dallas. Photo by Associated Press.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s proposal to extend hate crime protections to law enforcement officers is an unnecessary overreaction to recent violence against police and leads us down the slippery slope of prioritizing motives rather than actions.

Governor Greg Abbott is the latest state leader to propose extending hate crime protections to law enforcement officers in the wake of the recent police shootings. Louisiana did it earlier this year and similar proposals are being considered in Massachusetts, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

The desire to provide greater protections to police officers is a perfectly understandable response to a seeming epidemic of violence against police. But we should objectively evaluate legislation crafted as a response to a horrible tragedy.

With the recent slayings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, there is no better time to reinforce the public bond between the men and women who put their lives at risk each day and the citizens they protect.

Nevertheless, however well-intentioned the proposal, designating these crimes as “hate crimes” does not actually provide police officers with any greater protection than current law.

Hate crime designations criminalize thought, and criminalizing thought sets a dangerous precedent that leads to inconsistent application of penalties and unnecessary value judgments about life.

Instead of creating a special category of hate crimes, the Legislature should evaluate existing laws. If increased penalties are needed, then simply increase penalties. The same result would be achieved without the troubling aspects of hate crime laws.

Criminal statutes universally take into account the intent and the act of the offender when specifying the penalty for a given crime.

When it comes to intent, penalties increase based on the degree of intent the offender had at the time of the offense. That’s why intentional murder carries a greater penalty than a killing caused by criminal negligence.

While criminal statutes for centuries have looked at the degree to which the offender intended the outcome, they do not consider the offender’s motivation for the crime.

Hate crimes, on the other hand, presume to look into an offender’s mind and impose a greater punishment on them depending on what the individual was thinking at the time of the crime.

While public empathy with police officers might lead many not to care about criminalizing thought in this instance, where do we draw the line? If we criminalize hate, should we criminalize other emotions? If we justify it in one instance, it’s easier to justify it in others.

Criminalizing thought also can lead to inconsistent application of punishments and unnecessary value judgments about life, which is one reason why conservatives have been skeptical of any type of hate crime legislation.

Why should one criminal receive a lesser punishment if he killed someone because of greed, while another killer gets the book thrown at him because he hated a certain class of people?

Same act (killing), same intent (intentional), but different punishment.

Even the notion of a “hate crime” is nonsensical when it comes to murder. Aren’t all murders motivated by some form or degree of hate? And does anyone believe a hate crime designation would have prevented the Dallas police killings?

The truth is, there is no need for a special hate crime designation. While it may make us feel good to do something, this something will not accomplish its desired goal.

Texans have already determined that crimes against police officers justify heightened penalties over killing civilians. Murdering a police officer is capital murder, which is punishable by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or by death.

Since you cannot put someone to death more than once, or put a person in jail longer than his whole life, tacking on the hate crime label would not actually increase the penalties for these heinous crimes.

If the goal is to increase penalties, then the Legislature can simply increase penalties. The hate crime designation is unnecessary.

Lawmakers should stop trying to peer into the thoughts and emotions of offenders and instead examine the act and punish it accordingly.

Originally published on July 25, 2016 in the Dallas Morning News and the Institution for Policy Innovation. Wade Emmert is the former Chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party.

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