MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama could join states that make it a hate crime to attack police officers because of their profession, under legislation approved Thursday in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Representatives voted 92-0 to add the law enforcement profession to the categories — along with race and religion — covered by Alabama's hate crime law. Current law allows heightened penalties if crimes are motivated by the victim's race, religion, national origin, ethnicity or disability. Alabama does not include crimes motivated by a person's sexual orientation in the existing hate crime statute.
The bill found broad support in both parties in the House of Representatives following the shooting deaths of seven Alabama law enforcement officers over the past 13 months.
“This is quite frankly in response to the terror and assaults being carried out on police officers every day," said Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds, a former police chief who is the sponsor of the bill.
In 2106, Louisiana became the first state to pass what it called a “blue lives matter" law that added police officers to the hate crime statute. Texas, Kentucky and other states have followed with their own laws.
Alabama currently makes it a capital offense, punishable by death, to kill a police officer. But proponents of the bill said it could provide stiffer penalties for people who attack police officers in targeted assaults.
However, some Democrats , while supporting the bill, expressed concern it could be used to heighten penalties against people for disobeying police. Reynolds said he envisioned it would be used sparingly in instances where police are specifically targeted.
Others argued that lawmakers should also be willing to address gun control. At least five of the slain officers were killed with stolen guns.
“Why don't we do something about the guns on the street?" said Rep. John Rogers, a Democrat from Birmingham.
Democratic Rep. Neil Rafferty said hate crime statutes have traditionally been used for protections for individuals targeted for innate characteristics and for victims where crimes have been under-prosecuted.
Rafferty cited the examples of James Byrd, an African-American man who was killed in 1998 after being dragged behind a truck by white supremacists in Texas, and Mathew Shepard, a gay Wyoming student who died after being beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in 1998.
The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee this week delayed a vote on similar legislation. The committee last year approved the bill but added an amendment to include sexual orientation. The legislation did not pass.