A proposal to add law enforcement officers as a protected class to New Mexico’s hate crimes law will be considered by lawmakers in the next legislative session after a committee weighed the proposed law change Wednesday.
The proposal, introduced by Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is one of a number of proposed justice system changes for the next legislative session that are being drafted in response to a string of high-profile crimes in the Albuquerque area.
Those crimes include the shooting deaths of Rio Rancho officer Gregg Benner in May and Albuquerque officer Daniel Webster in October, and a shooting that injured Albuquerque officer Lou Golson during a traffic stop in January.
“There are instances where police officers are being attacked simply because they are police officers,” Gentry said. “It’s become clear that over the course of the summer and fall that our protectors need additional protection.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has called for expanding the federal hate crimes statute to include police.
Under New Mexico’s current hate crimes law, prosecutors can seek sentencing enhancements for attacks on minorities, the elderly, disabled and others that are motivated by prejudice against them because of their race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, age or ancestry.
“Status as a law enforcement officer” would be added to that list under Gentry’s proposal, which is supported by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.
Albuquerque Police Officers Association Vice President Shaun Willoughby said the union also supports a measure that would protect police under the hate crimes statute. However, it doesn’t want every case of resisting arrest to be prosecuted as a hate crime, he said.
“I think the real heart of the conversation is that society as a whole is losing respect for police officers,” Willoughby said. “It’s not a fix-all.”
He cited the October 2013 case of a 35-year-old Albuquerque man who authorities say shot at officers from a stolen police car and had a tattoo that said “cop killer” as an example of a crime that could have been included under the proposed hate crimes law if the suspect survived. Christopher Chase, the suspect, died after crashing the stolen vehicle at a gasoline station.
Democratic lawmakers told a press conference last month that they would consider voting for the proposed law during the 30-day legislative session, which begins Jan. 19. But Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday that although he supports additional penalties for attacks on police, he thinks hate crimes laws were designed to protect people who historically were targets of attacks motivated by hate or victims of civil rights violations.
“I don’t think this fits,” Maestas said. “My point is that it shouldn’t matter if (suspects) are battering them to get away, or they are deranged by drugs, or they hate them. It should matter that they did it.”