A bill to add police officers as a protected class under New Mexico’s hate crimes law cleared a Republican-controlled House committee Tuesday after a debate about whether attacks against law-enforcement professionals should be included in a law meant to apply to inherent characteristics such as race.
The legislation comes against a background of public outcry over recent high-profile fatal attacks on police officers in New Mexico and elsewhere. While national data show a general decline over the past decade in the number of officers killed by gunfire in the line of duty, law enforcement officials say they increasingly fear they are being targeted because they wear a uniform.
The proposal by Albuquerque Republicans Nate Gentry and Paul Pacheco, a former police officer, would add “status as a law enforcement officer” to the protections listed under the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act, allowing a judge to add at least a year to an underlying prison sentence in the case of a hate crime against a cop.
The current law allows an enhanced sentence for a crime motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
The committee, chaired by Rep. William Rehm, R-Albuquerque, endorsed the bill on a party-line vote.
Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, said there is a “trend of increased violence that’s without a doubt against officers specifically. Is that right?”
“Yes there is,” Gentry replied.
The bill’s fiscal impact report cites National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund data that say firearms killed 50 officers across the nation in 2014, a 56 percent spike from the previous year. Fifteen of those deaths came in “ambush style assaults,” according to the fund.
But a further look into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund data shows that shooting deaths of police officers have declined in the past decade, with a low of 33 officers shot to death in 2013. Preliminary data from 2015 show 42 officers killed by gunfire across the nation, down from the previous year. The group says that firearms-related fatalities against officers peaked in 1973 when 156 officers died from gunfire.
Regardless of frequency, shooting deaths of officers have grabbed the public’s attention in New Mexico and across the nation. In 2015, New Mexicans mourned Rio Rancho Police Officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner and Albuquerque Police Department Officer Daniel Webster, who both died after being shot during traffic stops.
Taina Colón, a criminal justice advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said it isn’t clear whether the bill would allow enhanced sentences for a crime such as resisting arrest or throwing a bottle at a political rally, she said.
“But what if that happened at a rally that was against the police department? Why wouldn’t it include that?” she said of the hate-crime proposal. “It isn’t clear in the bill.”
Gentry said his bill would allow for enhanced sentences on non-capital felonies, crimes which do not carry the possibility of a life sentence.
He also said the bill “has nothing to do with anyone’s First Amendment rights” and that it would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim’s status as a law enforcement officer motivated the underlying crime.
Bob Martinez, president of the New Mexico Fraternal Order of Police, said the group supports the bill, saying “enough is enough” with regard to violence against police officers.
“We have seen across this country on average 58,000 to 60,000 officers that have been assaulted, consistently assaulted, because of the uniform that they wear,” he said.
In 2013, 49,851 police officers were assaulted across the nation — the lowest amount in a decade — according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Also in 2013, 14,565 of those assaults resulted in injury. That’s also the lowest in a decade. The data does not make clear the intent behind such assaults.
Several law enforcement veterans testified that they have noticed increase violence against cops recently.
San Juan County Sheriff Tony Mace said “the streets are getting more violent for us, the public’s getting more violent against us.”
“Not only am I targeted,” he said, “my family is targeted because I drive a patrol car. I get bullet holes in it. It’s not because of me being Tony Mace. It’s me sheriff Mace, the elected law enforcement officer. The same with my deputies.”
The Administrative Office of the Courts said in the bill’s fiscal impact report that state law “already provides enhanced penalties for some crimes committed against peace officers.”
Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, told a story about her father being attacked and denied service while in military uniform while his white friends did not face such treatment.
“It didn’t matter whether he had a uniform or didn’t have a uniform,” she said. “The point is he can’t wash the color of his skin off.”
Justin Horwath can be reached at 986-3017 or [email protected].