One of the implicit assumptions I make here is that the criminal justice system is not exempt from the general principle that social institutions enforce social norms. In a society hostile to minorities, giving authorities another law to enforce is giving them another way to punish minorities. Even a law intended to help minorities can end up hurting them if the intended effect is overwhelmed by oppressive enforcement.
This especially applies to laws against hurting people’s feelings, such as laws that punish “bullying” or offensive (but non-violent) behavior, or even laws that increase the punishment for “hate crimes.” Although these laws are nominally intended to protect the powerless, they are part of a system that tends to protect and support the powerful, often harming the powerless in the process. That latter effect can swamp the intended purpose of the law and do more harm than good.
I think I first really understood this after hearing about Canadian anti-pornography laws premised on the feminist theory that pornography was a form of hate speech which harmed women. Among the first people to be prosecuted under these laws was the owner of a gay and lesbian bookstore — no doubt to protect women from the inherent misogyny of the materials sold there.
I’m bringing this up because of a recent proposal for extending the federal hate crime law:
Violence against police officers that is motivated by anti-police bias should be prosecuted as a hate crime, the nation’s largest police union is arguing in a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders this week.
“Right now, it’s a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
I’ll bet supporters of hate crime legislation didn’t see that coming. It never occurred to me that in the face of increasing complaints about police militarization and rough treatment of citizens, police unions would agitate for greater punishment of people who attack them.
I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about “anti-police bias.” I know they mean someone who hates cops, but it’s not as if cop is an innate human attribute like race or gender, and it’s not a system of belief or a group you can join like a religion. Cop is a job description. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing either the requirements of a public service job or the way particular employees perform at it.
“Enough is enough! It’s time for Congress to do something to protect the men and women who protect us,” Chuck Canterbury, the president of the union, said in a statement Monday. The group has long lobbied for harsher punishment for those who harm law enforcement officers.
Indeed they have, and very successfully. Anyone who kills a police officer is already subject to the harshest possible punishment, which is often the death penalty, and that’s only if they live long enough to be captured. So what do the union bosses really want?
I assume much of it is just grandstanding for the rank-and-file. That tends to explain a lot of bombast by the heads of any organization. But I think there’s probably more to it.
The FOP newsletter mentions several murdered police officers, and some dodgy news coverage talks about treating “killing cops” as a hate crime, but the language used by the union bosses talks only about “violence” and “attacks.” Furthermore, as near as I can tell, the federal hate crimes laws apply to a pretty broad range of aggressive acts that fall far short of murder, and some hate crime laws apply even to relatively minor property damage (to address things like spray painting swastikas on a synagogue). It sounds like even minor crimes against police could be treated as hate crimes if there was evidence the offenders didn’t like cops.
To me, this seems pretty clearly targeted at protesters. There’s certainly nothing wrong with charging them when they do something violent or destructive, but it’s important to keep a sense of proportion. With the proposed changes, if the laws are interpreted broadly enough — and you know police will interpret the laws broadly — every thrown object, every shove at a riot shield, and maybe even every vandalized patrol car could be charged as a hate crime, subject to the same kinds of harsh punishments we intended for Nazi skinheads and Klansmen who burn crosses on people’s lawns.