OLYMPIA – With one of the first and strongest laws against hate crimes in the country, Washington legislators are considering adding a new category of individuals it could cover for more severe punishment against those who try to harm or harass them:
Law enforcement officers.
The Senate passed such a bill last week on a 35-14 vote. But one expert on hate crimes and the way they are prosecuted told the House Public Safety Committee Tuesday that such a law may not be the best way to protect police and other uniformed officers.
While it may be good for optics and “sending a message,” adding law enforcement to such categories as race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation might not provide much additional protection, said Michelle Deutchman, Western states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. Washington law already allows sentences to be “enhanced,” or lengthened, for crimes against officers, and if lawmakers want tougher penalties, they could add them there.
Hate crimes can be harder to prove, she added. In many states hate crimes are treated as an enhancement at sentencing, but Washington is one of just a few states that have it as a stand-alone law.
That law protects groups that are attacked for things they can’t change, like race, national origin or sexual orientation, she said.
What about religion, asked committee chairman Roger Goodman. A person can change his or her religion, but that’s still a protected category under hate crime statutes.
Religion is one of the categories that historically has been protected, Deutchman replied, and law enforcement doesn’t fit that description either.
Nevertheless, the committee is considering adding crimes that target law enforcement to the hate crime categories, Goodman said.
Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, a member of the committee and a former Spokane police detective, said that while Deutchman made some good points, he’s inclined to add law enforcement to the hate crime categories after incidents like the 2009 murder of four officers in Lakewood, Washington, by a felon who targeted them while they met in a coffee shop.
“But prior intent is a high standard to prove,” Holy said. “I really want to look at this in depth.”
That review of the statutes comes at a time when the number of hate crimes is rising around the country and Washington has seen an uptick in crimes against different religious faiths.
Sarah Brown, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the latest statistics show a 25 percent increase in hate crimes for 2015 compared to 2014, with more than 1,000 reported in nine major U.S. cities. Washington was among the first states to pass laws against hate crimes in 1981, and currently 45 states have some form of hate crime law.
The laws have evolved, she said. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that a cross-burning is not by itself a hate crime because of free speech guarantees. But if it is being used to threaten or intimidate someone, that can be a hate crime.
Washington does have one of the more comprehensive hate crime statutes, the ADL’s Deutchman told the committee. “I wish we didn’t have to use them,” she said.