President Donald Trump encouraged Republicans on Thursday to further enhance the nation’s already stiff criminal penalties for violence against police officers.
In a vague executive order signed at the official swearing-in ceremony for new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump instructed Sessions to work with Congress to establish “new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes” to protect law enforcement officers.
More signalling than substance, the order gives executive agencies a broad directive for change without naming specific policy preferences. But you don’t need a divining rod to see where Trump is pointing his team.
Republicans have already embraced the idea of extending hate crimes protections to police officers. Trump’s rhetoric both before and after his election win made clear he will default to the side of police in any dispute with the public they serve. And three recent high-profile, ambush-style killings of police officers — one committed by a Trump fan and Confederate flag enthusiast in Iowa — have generated a sense of political urgency around officer safety.
Yet rather than deterring such rare and devastating assassinations, Thursday’s order lays down fertilizer for a frightfully dank new crop of routine police abuses.
Cops are already notorious for tacking on charges like resisting arrest or assaulting an officer in response to civilian defiance that is not actually criminal. The sentencing enhancements and “new Federal crimes” Trump wants could turn such trumped-up charges into felonies, allowing cops to effectively drop protesters, critical bystanders, and civilians insisting upon their rights into federal prison.
“There is abundant evidence that police overuse disorderly conduct and similar statutes to arrest people who ‘disrespect’ them or express disagreement with their actions,” the American Constitution Society’s Christy Lopez wrote in 2010, citing journalist and civilian oversight body investigations in multiple major cities going back to the early 2000s.
Officers and their bosses have coded language for such abuses of power, often referred to as “contempt of cop” cases. The cheeky phrase covers a common mode of police rope-a-dope, familiar from countless bystander videos of violent arrests, where an officer shouts “stop resisting” while subduing someone who insists she is not in fact resisting. Simply tensing up in instinctive response to an officer grappling you can, for many cops, constitute resistance — or even assault. This sort of abuse of authority is such a widely accepted practice that one officer even penned an op-ed warning the public to be compliant “if you don’t want to get hurt.”
It is all but impossible to prove in court that one was not in fact resisting or attacking the arresting officer. Yet after-the-fact scrutiny reveals such charges are frequently invented out of thin air to enhance the punishment someone faces for mouthing off.
People get charged with assaulting an officer for things like wiggling in their handcuffs or shouting at a cop, a lengthy investigation of “contempt of cop” culture in one major city police department, found. Reporters found police in Washington, D.C., file “assaulting an officer” charges three times more often than cities of comparable size — and that prosecutors declined to pursue the charge in 40 percent of cases, suggesting the professionals who have to prove a thing in court did not find the arresting officer’s claims compelling.
In Louisiana, the first state to adopt a Blue Lives Matter hate-crime statute last year, resisting arrest is now a felony hate crime. Similar laws in other states would do likewise with “assaulting an officer” allegations. If such ideas go federal, cover charges would become life-ruining felonies. Those within the police business who are already content to hassle mouthy civilians with misdemeanors would suddenly be able to put them in cages for years instead. Thursday’s order is a vague call for ideas — but the hate-crimes enhancement for police is the most obvious idea already on the table, and multiple Republicans have already proposed federal versions of it going back to last year.
Greater ability to abuse and intimidate is the most obvious downside of the policy shift Trump called for Thursday. It might seem there is a similarly obvious upside to granting special protections to people who risk their lives upholding the law.
But there is not. Police already get special protections. Nearly every state criminal code already imposes far stiffer penalties for attacks on officers. In Missouri, for example, second-degree assault gets you anywhere from a day in prison to a seven-year stretch — unless your victim was a cop, in which case you face at least five and up to 15 years in prison. Federal law similarly includes stiffer sentences for attacking federal officers and judges.
With tougher laws already on the books to protect cops, the value of further enhancements to sentencing is almost certainly nil. The madman who attacked and murdered five Dallas officers last July while they escorted peaceful marchers would likely not have changed his plans if the law were harsher. “These are not the kind of guys who read the criminal code and consider the consequences,” as the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote after the attacks, rejecting state and federal efforts to extend hate crimes protections to police.
The same flaws stain whatever new push Trump intends with Thursday’s order. Neither new statutes nor stiffer penalties for old ones will stop the sort of attacks that devastated Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Des Moines in 2016.
Instead, they will unleash cops to go after whoever they please — and potentially clog the law enforcement and judicial systems with far more serious versions of the same bogus “contempt of cop” charges that are already so prevalent today.