If you attack a police officer, Red Wing supports calling it a hate crime.
When the police chief approached the city for a show of support, the City Council’s response was swift and unanimous.
The Red Wing City Council passed a resolution last week calling for crimes against law enforcement to be prosecutable as hate crimes.
The picturesque town on the banks of the Mississippi River is believed to be the second place in the nation — and the first city — to pass such a resolution.
“It seems that anyone wearing a blue uniform has become a target in the minds of a lot of people — a target not because of what they’re doing, but a target because of who they are, which for me really kind of moves it into the hate crimes area,” said Council Vice President Peggy Rehder. “In this case, it’s not the color of their skin, but the color of their uniform.”
The National Fraternal Order of Police early this year urged Congress to expand the federal law that makes it a crime to injure someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability and other protected groups.
Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman presented the resolution to the city, reminding council members of Minnesota State Fair protesters openly voicing “negative rhetoric toward law enforcement professionals.”
The vote disturbed Rashad Turner, leader of Black Lives Matter St. Paul and one of the organizers of the State Fair protest. The protests, he said, are meant to draw public attention to the men and women who have been killed by police across the country, he said. The chants that rang out during the State Fair protest — including some marchers who chanted “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!” — are an expression of people’s anger and frustration over those deaths, he said.
“Law enforcement wants to make themselves out to be the victim,” he said. “We just want to stop being killed.”
Minnesota does not have a hate crimes law. The idea of extending more protection to police than to the people they serve is “disgusting,” Turner said.
Attacking a police officer already carries serious consequences in Minnesota. Under state law, an assault on a law enforcement officer can mean increased fines and jail time. If the officer is injured, a misdemeanor assault can bump up to a felony. State law also carries enhanced penalties for attacks on many professions, including firefighters, judges, prosecutors, teachers and postal workers, among others.
“If you commit violence against a police officer, your penalty will be enhanced. That already exists,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
“The police are well-protected, and one of the problems that police have currently is that they have lost the support of big chunks of the community, particularly in the inner city, but also among young people,” Samuelson said.
Following the ambush murders of two New York City police officers last December, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a renewed call for support from communities. Police are “not just feeling under attack, we are under attack,” said Executive Director Jim Pasco.
Some communities have responded. Coon Rapids plans a Police Lives Matter rally later this month.
But some observers argue that officials shouldn’t be too quick to change federal law.
The federal hate crimes law was “not meant to protect various occupations that are particularly dangerous,” said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. “Of course, the police have always been in the line of attack. It’s part of the job. And they’re not the only occupational group in that situation, although theirs is extreme.”
Adding more and more groups would dilute the law, he said. While the ambush-style violence against police officers is serious, such trends are typically short-lived, he said.
“If, however, we see a long-term increase in the number of police officers who are ambushed because they are police officers, then they might have a legitimate reason for having their group added to the list of protected categories by the federal government,” Levin said.
Until that is established, he pointed out, federal prosecutors can throw the book at people who commit violence against law enforcement, including introducing hate as an aggravating factor during sentencing.
But Red Wing’s police chief said law enforcement needs local government support. Through Sept. 23, 96 law enforcement officers died nationwide this year, Pohlman said, up from 83 in the same time period last year.
However, that figure includes deaths from traffic accidents and natural causes. The FBI maintains a separate database of so-called felonious killings of law enforcement — officers shot, attacked, deliberately struck by vehicles or otherwise fatally injured during the commission of a felony. Those figures jumped in 2014 after two years of declines, but have declined this year.
During the first half of 2015, 23 officers were feloniously killed nationwide, a 28 percent decrease from the 32 officers killed in the first half of 2014, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Over time, the number of officers killed has remained “relatively static,” Pasco said, but the numbers don’t take into account the better equipment, training and medical care benefiting police in recent years. “The overwhelming anecdotal evidence that comes to us: There’s an increased hostility,” Pasco said.
Red Wing’s resolution followed a similar measure passed last month in Warren County, Ohio.
Pohlman said his 29 officers in Red Wing do their best to enforce the laws. “To hear all the negative publicity kind of wears on you over time.”