If Gov. Susana Martinez’s call to reinstate the death penalty after the killing of an on-duty police officer looks familiar, that’s because something very similar happened last year. After the 2015 high-profile killings of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benne and Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, Martinez and Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives made tough-on-crime measures their signature effort during the ensuing legislative session. Now, another high-profile death of a cop—this time Hatch police officer Jose Chavez—presents a similar political opportunity. And this time, it comes ahead of a general election where Republicans are aiming to preserve their majority in the state House of Representatives and win control of the state Senate. In a prepared statement announcing her intentions, Martinez also evoked the recent Dallas massacre of five cops during a protest prompted by police shootings of two unarmed black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
In addition to adding law enforcement officers as a protected class to the state Hate Crimes Act, a Republican-sponsored bill would now add first responders if it becomes law. The change came Tuesday afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee at the request of House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. Egolf first suggested firefighters as being added because of the danger their job entails. The suggestion led to little debate, with House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and cosponsor of the original bill agreeing fairly quickly. The bill passed its second committee unanimously, with Democratic Reps.
Rick Little found himself at the center of attention following his committee’s passage of a law that would add police officers to the list of protected classes in the state’s Hate Crimes Act. Instead of discussing the high profile bill in an election year, focus was on the Chaparral Republican’s comments at the end questioning whether some of the protected classes under the Hate Crimes Act, such as gender identity or sexual orientation, are lifestyle choices. KRQE-TV tried to pin down Little on whether or not he thinks sexual orientation is a choice. Little would not immediately answer and his handlers tried to pull him way, but reporter Alex Goldsmith pressed on, saying it was a yes or no answer. Little appeared flustered.
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.
Legislators wrestled Wednesday afternoon with the idea of adding cops and law enforcement to the list of protected classes under state hate crime laws. State House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is carrying the bill as part of a “tough on crime” package endorsed by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and the House Republican leadership. One GOP lawmaker expressed his skepticism of the idea in a hearing of Gentry’s bill at the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. “I believe we’ve got laws already on the books that should take care of this,” state Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, told Gentry at the hearing. “A lot of these things go on the judge’s discretion anyway.”
The committee didn’t vote on whether to endorse the bill or not.