The following is from the July 19, 2016, edition of KERA Public Radio. SMU Law Professor Meghan Ryan provided expertise for this story.
July 20, 2016
By Christopher Connelly
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he wants to classify attacks on police as hate crimes. The idea has the backing of law enforcement groups, but it’s raised some concerns among advocates for hate crimes legislation.
Charley Wilkison says police officers feel like they have a target on their backs. He’s the head of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. That feeling, he says, started long before cops were gunned down in Dallas and Baton Rouge. . .
Texas, like most other states, already has sentence enhancements for crimes against public servants. For instance, a homicide becomes a capital offense if the victim is a police officer. Still, murders of cops are relatively rare. Assault charges, however, are not. In addition to the hate crime enhancements, the governor wants stiffer penalties for assaults on law enforcement. And assault doesn’t necessarily mean hauling off and slugging someone; it could just mean a threat.
“There has to be an imminent threat of causing physical injury, and there can be a bit of interpretation as to what that means,” says Meghan Ryan, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. “Maybe it takes less in this sort of climate that there was a threat, an imminent threat against a police officer than it would have a year ago.”
Most criminal cases never even make it to court, though. Classifying crimes targeting cops as hate crimes could give prosecutors more leverage, Ryan says, which could lead to more plea bargains because fewer defendants would be willing to risk a trial. Already, 95 percent of criminal convictions in Texas come from plea bargains.
As for the law’s potential to deter crimes against police officers, Ryan says the jury’s still out.
“We don’t really know, scientifically, what sort of effect this has on deterrence,” she says. “But there’s a concern with deterrence that the type of people that we’re dealing with – criminal offenders – aren’t really rational, so their cost-benefit analysis differs from ordinary citizens.”
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