Lawmakers favored adding a new group to rank alongside people of color, LGBT people, the physically and mentally impaired and others as protected under the state Human Rights Act—law enforcement officers.
The bill, which the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee passed Tuesday afternoon on a 5-4 party-line vote, would make crimes committed against law enforcement officers specifically because they are law enforcement officers hate crimes.
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said penalties for people who commit crimes against an officer on the first offense would increase by one year and on the second offense by two years.
“A couple of police officers were murdered in the line of duty last year,” Gentry said, referring to New Mexico officers Daniel Webster and Gregg “Nigel” Benner.
Gentry cited an increasing number of officers killed by guns in the country, which he said grew by 56 percent from 2013 to 2014. The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, however, reports that gun-related deaths of officers decreased by nearly 25 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Houston Chronicle, and says evidence lacks that the number of police officers killed because of their jobs is rising.
Representatives from civil rights groups spoke out in opposition of the bill.
“Hate crimes don’t include occupations,” Israel Chavez, a development director with Equality New Mexico, which supports LGBT rights, said. “They include protected classes who are vulnerable members of society. When you open it to occupations you mess with what a hate crime is.”
Suki Halevi, New Mexico Director of the Anti-Defamation League, brought up how New Mexico law already treats crimes against police officers tougher than normal. She cited how specifically aggravated assault against someone is considered a fourth degree felony yet against a police officer is considered a third degree felony.
Others like Taina Colon, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union-New Mexico, cited a quote Gentry gave to the Albuquerque Journal saying he wanted to discourage “anti-police rhetoric.”
“That will be the effect of this bill, it will chill speech,” Colon said.
Gentry maintained that his bill has “nothing to do with anybody’s First Amendment rights” and “everything to do with those people who commit felonies against police officers because they’re police officers.”
Multiple law enforcement representatives, as well as one representative from the business community, spoke in favor of the bill.
“Enough is enough,” Bob Martinez, state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said. “The evidence supports and shows officers are being assaulted simply because of the uniform they are wearing. If I’m wearing a uniform or badge, why am I being targeted? Police officers have civil rights as well.”
Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace mentioned getting bullet holes in his cars and police officer friends who can’t eat a public meal in peace because they are “having to worry about getting shot.”
“We don’t see in the news that a certain group attacked firefighters, but you see law enforcement getting attacked on a day to day basis,” Mace said.
Some lawmakers argued that making officers a protected class could add danger to people who are already among the protected classes through the state’s Human Rights Act. Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said racial profiling by cops is still well and alive today, and that the bill would mean those people may have less protections. She also told stories of her war veteran father being targeted with violence simply because he was Hispanic.
“He could go home and take off his uniform, he would still be targeted,” she said. “He couldn’t wash the color of his skin off.”
Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, himself a cop, said officers can choose at any time to walk away from their jobs.
“When we signed up for this job, they made it very clear that we could lose our lives,” Ruiloba, who voted against the bill, said.
Rep. Rick Little, D-Chaparral, stated his skepticism of human rights acts. He also said he thought that some protected classes, like sexual orientation, gender identification and the homeless, could be choices. Homeless people aren’t protected under the state Human Rights Act.
“I don’t believe in hate crimes period,” Little said. “I believe we have laws in the nation and unfortunately if you assault grandma in the parking lot, is it more of a crime, less of a crime if you are a certain color?”
Little voted for the bill anyway.
Correction: This story initially said the committee was the House Safety and Public Affairs Committee. It is actually the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee.