Members of the law enforcement community are weighing in on a so-called “Blue Lives Matter Act” that may be filed in the 2017 legislative session. The proposal would expand Florida’s definition of a hate crime to include law enforcement officers and firefighters—similar to a bill filed last year.
Under Florida law, committing a crime against someone else based on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation is classified as a hate crime. So is mental or physical disability or an elderly citizen.
But, some want to add Florida’s first responders to that list.
“We’ve seen an unconscionable move toward ambush assaults that are entirely unprovoked simply because of the uniforms they wear,” said Rep. Elizbeth Porter (R-Lake City), speaking back in 2015.
Porter had filed a measure increasing the penalties for hate crimes committed against first responders, correctional officers, and judges. First responders include law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics.
Porter referred to some chants made by the Black Lives Matter movement at a Minnesota rally last year as an example of why her legislation is needed.
“When we hear chants of ‘pigs in a blanket,’ fry em’ like bacon,’” added Porter. “When first responders are lured to locations to serve as targets, then we know that this situation is out of control and beyond the pail. The relentless propaganda that has been directed toward our public safety officials has openly encouraged those who would do harm to them to be justified in doing so. And, it’s time we force these hostile criminals to think twice about what they intend to do.”
For example, under Florida’s hate crime law, a first degree misdemeanor would be reclassified as a third degree felony.
But, during its first House hearing, the Florida Public Defenders Association had some concerns that Columbia County Public Defender Blair Payne—at the time—said he’d hope to work with Porter on.
“Florida Public Defenders Association is not taking a position on this bill at present time,” said Payne, during a February House Criminal Justice Subcommittee meeting. “We have some concerns with it about enhancing offenses that have already been enhanced.”
“One of the criticisms of this bill is okay, now we’re taking an occupation and making it a hate crime, said Matt Pucket, the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s Executive Director. “And, people will say, ‘well, that’s not necessary.’ But, I think it is. I think if you target a first responder, you should have the book thrown at you plain and simple.”
That’s Florida Police Benevolent Association’s Executive Director Matt Puckett, who says while Porter’s bill died in the committee process, the measure still has value.
That’s why he says he’s encouraged by Ocala Republican Representative Dennis Baxley’s pledge to file a proposal doing just that along with Polk City Republican Representative Neil Combee—both running for re-election. The “Blue Lives Matter Act” is in response to the recent Dallas shootings where five police officers were killed. While he appreciates the name, Puckett hopes it doesn’t hinder what the bill is trying to do.
“You know, I would hope that it doesn’t turn into that kind of discussion because I think we’re losing the meaning behind not only this legislation, but also the meaning behind what Black lives Matter stands for, and what people are genuinely saying when they say All Lives Matter too,” Puckett added. “I think that’s being caught up in a rhetoric that’s not helpful and we’re talking past each other. So, if that becomes a problem, I hope that we could talk that into a different name. But, I understand and appreciate the sentiment. So, we’ll see. I think titles of bills can be changed without losing the meaning behind what the bill is trying to accomplish.”
Similar to Porter’s bill, law enforcement and firefighters would be covered under Florida’s hate crime law. And, Puckett says the proposal—a priority for his group—would mirror a Louisiana law taking effect next month.
“It’s going to bring a discussion about what’s going on in the first responder community,” he continued. “And, I don’t want to just focus on law enforcement because I know that paramedics and firefighters along with other medical personnel feel like they’re being targeted too. And, I feel like that discussion needs to be put out there. And, I feel like people forget that these things happen. And, I hate to be so callous, but they hear, ‘officers killed in the line of duty.’ They don’t realize that officers were brought into a situation, thinking one thing was going to happen, and then, they were attacked. And, they were attacked just because they were law enforcement.”
For example, Puckett says the bill’s inspiration is Chris Smith, a Leon County Sheriff’s deputy killed in 2014.
“You had a person who wanted to kill first responders, particularly law enforcement, who set his house on fire and had his neighbor call it in,” stated Puckett. “And, he waited to ambush officers and he killed Deputy Smith and shot another deputy. And, he was ultimately was killed. That was a targeted attack against law enforcement. We’ve seen others.”
But, Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood who’s running for re-election says he’s reserving his opinion right now until actual legislation is filed.
“Obviously, it’s a very serious crime to attack a law enforcement officer,” said Wood. “I’m satisfied that statutorily that’s in place. We earn trust, one encounter at a time, and so that’s how we do it here at the Sheriff’s office and statewide at Sheriff’s offices and police departments. And, that’s not to say we’re perfect because we’re smart enough to know we’re not. But, the statute, as it relates to attacking law enforcement officers are pretty stiff, pretty serious, and so, I just would have to see additional legislation before I would have an opinion on it.”
Meanwhile, the Florida Sheriffs Association says it won’t comment until an actual bill is filed.
And, the Fraternal Order of Police—at least, on the national level—have been trying for years to get a hate crime law on the federal books to include law enforcement.
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