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A bicameral, bipartisan bill called the Protect and Serve Act of 2018 could enhance penalties for assaulting police officers.

The Washington Post describes the legislation, now pending in both chambers of Congress, as akin to considering attacks on law enforcement as hate crimes. Blasted by the paper as a ‘terrible idea’ with the potential to cause real human harm, dozens of human rights watchdogs have begun rallying against the measure, too.

The act, backed by a bipartisan team of lawmakers, would impose prison sentences of ten years on anyone who attacks a cop simply for being a member of police. Assaults or incidences ending with the death of an officer would be punished by a mandatory life sentence.

Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) is cosponsoring Protect and Serve in the House, where it’s formally known as H.R. 5698. Rutherford, along with some of his colleagues, claims that legislative action is needed to combat out-of-control crime and an uptick in the ambush killings of police officers.

“As a career law enforcement officer and sheriff of Jacksonville for 12 years, I know what officers go through every day when they put on their uniform,” said Rep. Rutherford last week. “With an uptick in ambush attacks on law enforcement, […] we must ensure that there are steep consequences for anyone who targets our law enforcement officers. The Protect and Serve Act will serve as a significant deterrent for anyone who deliberately targets officers with violence.”

New York State Police Traffic Stop; image by dwightsghost, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.
New York State Police Traffic Stop; image by dwightsghost, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.

A letter published on the Human Rights Watch website shows that Rutherford’s effort isn’t well-received among watchdogs and special interest watchdogs. More than 20 organizations, including the ACLU, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, NAAP and Southern Poverty Law Center signed the petition, asking Congress to abandon the fantastical narrative of a “war on cops.”

Noting that federal law already has “extremely strong penalties for people who commit crimes against law enforcement,” the signatories claim there’s no evidence to suggest that attacks on officers go unprosecuted or often end without punishment to the perpetrator.

And, citing the FBI’s own statistics on police fatalities over the past decade, Human Rights Watch contends that deaths in the line of duty have more or less remained constant from one year to the next.

As the Washington and Post and HRW point out, creating another set of criminal charges can make it more difficult for the victims of police brutality to seek justice.

“An assault on a police officer is often used as a cudgel,” writes the Post, used to dissuade victims from filing complaints against their attackers. In a time when the public’s more skeptical of law enforcement than ever before, misapplication of Protect and Serve could have consequences for protesters who accidentally jostle officers.

Even if a local district attorney declined to press charges against a hypothetical protester accused of bumping or shoving an officer, the legislation would empower federal prosecutors to take over state cases.

The end result could be the alienation of already-disenfranchised communities as well as an ‘uptick’ in the use of battery charges as a strategy to suppress and silence victims of police brutality.

Sources

Coalition Letter Urging US Congress to Oppose H.R. 5698/S. 2794, the Protect and Serve Act of 2018

The Protect and Serve Act Could Make the Fight Against Police Brutality More Difficult

The ‘Protect and Serve Act’ is political grandstanding over a nonexistent problem — and it could cause real harm

Rutherford, Demings Introduce Protect and Serve Act of 2018

Sen. Heitkamp cosponsors bill that makes attacks on law enforcement a federal crime

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