Anne Arundel lawmakers sponsor bill to give police hate crime protections

Amanda Yeager
Contact Reporterayeager@capgaznews.com
House of Delegates committe to hear testimony Tuesday on legislation.

Maryland's hate crime law protects people against crimes based on race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, national origin and homelessness.

Two Anne Arundel County lawmakers want to add crimes against law enforcement officers to the list.

A House of Delegates committee on Tuesday will hear testimony on legislation sponsored by Sen. Bryan Simonaire and Del. Meagan Simonaire, Republicans from Pasadena who argue the state's police and corrections officers should have another layer of protection under the law.

"Brave men and women are being targeted simply because they wear the blue uniform," Sen. Simonaire, Del. Simonaire's father, said in a statement about the bill. "If Maryland provides protection against hate crimes on our homeless, I wholeheartedly believe our targeted police deserve the same protections."

The bill, initially billed the "Blue Lives Matter Act," will soon be called the "Police Protection Act," Sen. Simonaire said, if an amendment to change its name is successful. Simonaire said he initiated the change after talking with police, and that the new title was "more reflective of the intent of the bill."

The legislation has backing from police unions throughout the state as well as Republican legislators in Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties, among others. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is opposed, arguing the change is unnecessary and would heighten distrust between police and the communities they serve.

Hate crime law allows prosecutors to pursue additional charges if they can prove a crime was committed out of prejudice against one of the law's protected groups. The statute can add 3 years for misdemeanor charges, 10 years for felonies and 20 years for crimes that result in the death of the victim.

Hate crimes extend beyond assault, and can also include damaging or defacing a person's property.

State law already includes stricter consequences for people who attack police officers and first responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, while they are on the job. Assaults on officers and first responders that lead to physical injury are punishable by a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

The Simonaires point to "recent and senseless targeting of law enforcement across the nation" as evidence that police officers are under particular threat of harm. Last year, ambush attacks on police saw five officers killed in Dallas and three killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In Maryland, two Harford County sheriff's deputies were shot to death in Abingdon in February and a Prince George's County police officer was killed by friendly fire in March as officers reacted to a gunman outside a police station.

In letters of support for the bill, unions representing police officers, sheriffs and correctional officers also argued police officers are increasingly at risk.

"During a year where law enforcement officers are being assaulted and murdered at unprecedented rates, we at the FOP believe that this legislation will provide officers, and their families, an added protection against the already inherent dangers associated with police work," wrote Vince Canales, president of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police. "This law we hope would be a deterrent to anyone that would think about taking the life of an officer."

The most recent nationwide data available from the FBI shows a decline in officers who were killed as a result of criminal acts — 41 in 2015 vs. 51 in 2014, while assaults rose slightly, with 50,212 officers assaulted in the line of duty in 2015, compared with 48,315 line-of-duty assaults in 2014. Preliminary data for 2016 will not be available until the spring.

In a letter opposing the bill, Toni Holness, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, wrote that it "would undermine the crucial relationship between police and communities by creating and perpetuating a false narrative that law enforcement officers are under attack by the communities they serve."

Holness noted that hate crime protections are typically extended "where the government lacks the will or capacity to prosecute offenses against a group."

"There is absolutely no evidence that Maryland's prosecutors are unable to pursue crimes against law enforcement under existing criminal statutes, nor is there evidence that prosecutors treat offenses against law enforcement flippantly," she wrote.

Giving attacks on police officers hate crime status has been a priority for the national Fraternal Order of Police for years, and recently won support in Louisiana, where the legislature expanded its hate crimes law to include police last May. A similar effort recently passed the Senate in Mississippi.

In Maryland, a bill extending hate crime protections to police that was sponsored by Del. Steven Arentz, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, last session failed to make it out of the Judiciary Committee in the Democrat-controlled House. Arentz's version also included first responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Tuesday's hearing begins at 1 p.m.

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