• 82°

House votes to make targeting police a hate crime

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.

“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.

Attacks on police officers have hit close to home in Pike County with an Ozark officer being shot in the head in December and Lowndes County Sheriff “Big John” Williams killed in November in the line of duty.

“This is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Troy Police Chief Randall Barr. “Those who choose to take or attempt to take the life of our law enforcement officers know no boundaries and must be dealt with swiftly. Punishment for those committing such heinous acts should remove them from the free world forever.”

Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas said the world is getting more dangerous for law enforcement officers.

“We need protection. These are hard jobs that have gotten tougher over the years,” Thomas said. “It gets tough to talk about – I’ve known (Big John Williams) for almost four decades. I was the first person to tell him to run for sheriff in Lowndes County. Everyone loved him; he was well-respected.. Any time you ever needed anything from him, he was always there … It’s senseless that he lost his life. It’s tough seeing your friend there laying on the ground, their life taken because of a senseless act.”

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.

Rep. Wes Allen, R-Pike, said he was proud to support the legislation and is hopeful that it will pass the senate soon and become law.

“We as a society must do our part and teach our children to respect the life and property of others.,” Barr said. “We must teach them to respect not only our law enforcement officers and our teachers, but to respect themselves. We as parents must get involved and stay involved in our children’s lives and show them the way.  They learn so much from our actions.  We are fortunate to live and work in a community that supports our law enforcement officers. There is seldom a day that goes by that I don’t hear positive comments about the work that our officers do.  We are grateful for that support. “

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.