State lawmakers to consider hate crime protections for law enforcement

State lawmakers to consider hate crime protections for law enforcement
Hattiesburg police responded to a report of stolen car batteries on March 5. (Photo source: WDAM)

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Mississippi lawmakers are expected to consider hate crime protections for law enforcement officers during the 2017 legislative session.

"What it does is it enhances the penalties for anyone committing a crime against a member of the law enforcement community, which I think is extremely important because we're seeing now, unfortunately, more and more of what happened last year here in Hattiesburg of a targeting of law enforcement officers," said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee."If they're going to be targets as they're out there trying to protect the rest of us, I think it only makes sense that we do our best as lawmakers to protect them as they're protecting us."

Right now, anyone in Mississippi who kills a member of law enforcement can receive the death penalty, but the proposed legislation would create tougher punishment for lesser crimes, like aggravated assault.

"The idea is to enhance the criminal penalties associated with assaults on police officers," said Alan Thompson, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at The University of Southern Mississippi. "I think the legislature has good intent here in terms of providing police officers with some added peace of mind that if they are assaulted over the course of performing their duties, that the individual will receive punishment plus. This may, perhaps, close any potential loop holes in the system, in the law, where, for example, an individual might assault a police officer and perhaps not receive the level of sanction that the public expects for crimes against the police."

If passed, the law would add law enforcement officers to the list of other public servants, like judges, who are already protected by Mississippi's hate crime law.

"Somebody might say, well why should a police officer receive additional protection by comparison to an average citizen?'" Thompson said. "Judges, prosecutors, police officers and other public servants deserve that additional level of protection because they represent the rule of law."

Fillingane said, "I think the ACLU, who I've noticed, has argued saying you're treating similarly situated people differently, and my response to them is they're not similarly situated. You know, you and I over the course and scope of our daily activities aren't out putting our lives on the line dealing with a criminal element in our society, so we're not similarly situated."

Fillingane said while having an enhanced penalty for killing an officer is a good standard, he hopes criminalizing lesser offenses prevents altercations from escalating to that point.

"We never want it to get to that point, obviously," Fillingane said. "I don't think anyone would want it to get to that point, so the question is what can we do prior to it getting that far to try to abate that kind of activity? And I think the obvious answer is, well, you make those lesser included offenses more punitive against the offender, so that you act as a deterrent to keep them from ever getting that far to the murder or attempted murder. What this bill would do, it would probably double the penalties for any crime committed against a member of law enforcement when they are in the process of carrying out their official duties."

Thompson said he is doubtful the law would stop someone who was truly set on harming an officer from doing so, but still thinks the added peace of mind for members of law enforcement would make the law beneficial.

"I'm very doubtful that such individuals are going to stop and think, 'If I assault this officer, I'm looking at an extra 10 years,'" Thompson said. "So there's some doubt about whether or not it's really going to have a significant deterrent effect. I do think that whatever we can do to show support for people who are going out on a daily basis and (are) simply trying to protect and serve members of the community deserve the peace of mind and whatever protection we can extend to them."

Fillingane said for him, the bill is also personal.

"I knew Officer Deen. He was in my community in Sumrall. This is personal for me. I know these people, and I see them quite often in the community. Their heart is still broken, and so if this small thing will help prevent that from happening to another family, we should do that."

Louisiana implemented a similar Blue Lives Matter Law 2016.