Legislator aims to add police to Virginia’s hate crime law despite lack of protections for LGBTQs
New legislation, slated to be introduced in the upcoming session of Virginia’s General Assembly in January 2017, seeks to expand Virginia’s current hate crime statute. However, according to the Virginia Chapter of the ACLU, and other advocacy human rights groups, it lacks provisions to protect the state’s minorities not already covered.
It also contains specific language that would make law enforcement personnel a legally “protected” class.
Virginia’s current hate crime law protects people based on race, religious conviction, color, or national origin. Penalties are increased if a crime is committed against someone because of those reasons. A class 1 misdemeanor will carry a penalty of an additional six months in jail and a 30-day mandatory minimum period of incarceration. If the attack is classified as assault and battery and results in injury to the victim, the offense is escalated to a Class 6 felony, which can result in one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $2,500 upon conviction.
Additionally, it is a Class 6 felony to knowingly assault a law-enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency medical service personnel. Yet, no protection is offered under the law for assaults against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
HB 1398, as proposed by House Delegate from District 20, Dickie Bell (R-Staunton), would expand “the definition of hate crime for the purpose of reporting hate crimes within the Department of State Police to include acts against persons employed as law-enforcement officers, firefighters, or emergency medical services personnel.”
“I have a lot of friends in law enforcement in my district, and folks who work in both paid and volunteer emergency medical people and firefighters,” Bell said in an interview with GayRVA. “We talked about it a number of different times. Of course, the environment nationally had not been very pretty, it’s been a dangerous situation for a lot of those people to be in and it just seemed to me to make some sense to add them to our existing hate crime statute.”
Bell believes certain organizations that have opposed similar bills in other states “have a feeling that it waters down the hate crime statute.” But he doesn’t see it that way, instead he believes it’s a way to protect those who “risk their lives for us every day.”
In contrast to Bell’s statements, Claire Gastanaga, Executive Director of the Virginia ACLU, called the proposed legislation bill, and others like it, part of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement which aims to elevate police officers above the rest of society at a time when unity is needed most.
“Even if another legislator introduces this same bill with LGBT inclusive language, we will continue to say that the public safety reporting provisions are unnecessary, politically motivated and divisive and can only drive a deeper wedge between police officers and the communities they serve.” Gastanaga told GayRVA via email.
As one of the only two openly gay delegates in the Virginia General Assembly, Del. Mark Levine (D-45) has been vocal in the past about legislative reform in terms of LGBT rights, including efforts to remove the same-sex marriage ban from the state code and constitution.
Levine sees extending hate crime protection to law enforcement as a solution to “a relatively nonexistent problem.”
“A hate crime is not fighting against a police officer who is arresting you,” Levine said. “A police officer is trained to protect himself or herself and that’s good. But compare the police officer with a 16-year-old transgender child who is all-alone and getting beaten up. Again, we need to protect our police but we certainly need to protect people who are unarmed and are extremely threatened and more likely to be attacked.”
The Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), shared Gastanaga’s concerns.
“The idea that they are creating is that people should get hate crime law protection based on the profession that they choose,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Virginia’s current hate crime legislation includes protected classes of people whom SPLC has deemed hold certain “immutable characteristics or deeply held beliefs, like religion.”
A report published by the New York Times, following the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting this past June, found that “LGBTQ people are twice as likely to be targeted as African-Americans, and the rate of hate crimes against them has surpassed that of crimes against Jews,” based on statistics from 2014. The SPLC released a similar report in 2011, which found that LGBTQ people are more than four times as likely to be targeted for hate crimes in the United States than, for example, those who are identified as Muslims.
“LGBTQ people are targeted at extremely high rates and that is a real problem,” Potok said, adding; “LGBTQ people do not get the kind of additional protections that police officers do in most places.”
The omission of sexual orientation and gender identity from Virginia’s hate crime protection has been a political issue as well as a legal issue previously. In May 2015, a Chesterfield County man working at a local Amazon Fulfillment Center was beaten by a coworker for being gay. Because sexual orientation isn’t included in the definition of a hate crime at the state level, the case was sent to the federal level where it has continued to stall in the face of weak federal laws combined with a lack of state-level protections.
Attempts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s hate crime law have been proposed and shot down for years. Most recently, a 2016 GA bill proposed by Del. Sullivan (D-48) was left to die in the courts and justice committee. 2015 saw a similar bill also killed in committee.
Backing the legislation is the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police, which has advocated for the filing of HB 1398, “in lieu of the fact that law enforcement officers are being targeted and killed around the country just because they are a police officer,” said VAFOP president Kevin Carroll.
“If you look at law enforcement officer deaths this year by gunfire, it’s up over 40 percent,” Carroll said. A search of the Officer Down Memorial Page shows, nationwide, 39 officers killed by gunfire in 2015, and 46 so far in 2016. “It’s been a very tough year for law enforcement officers. I think that this is a piece of legislation that is certainly worthy of being discussed and debated by the General Assembly.”
But the SPLC is less confident in the need to expand the hate crime law when protections are already in place.
“I think there is some real hypocrisy here,” Potok said. “I think the state needs to look out for the people who really need protection instead of simply engaging in political showmanship.”
Bell said that he wants the bill to be considered separately from past legislation that would include sexual orientation in the definition of a hate crime, mostly because those efforts have been unsuccessful in the past.
“If we’re going to include that whole community, I don’t know at what point we start declassifying people,” Bell said. “To me, in some ways, I don’t want to paint them as targets or draw unnecessary attention to them. I didn’t consider it as part of my legislation because I just didn’t think it was appropriate in this bill, but it may be appropriate at another time.”
Top image via Elvert Barnes/Flickr
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