Abbott’s hate crime proposal misses mark

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book 'Broken but Unbowed' as he launches his book tour at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book ‘Broken but Unbowed’ as he launches his book tour at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Politics aside, the desire to do something — really anything — to prevent the senseless shootings of police officers trying to serve the public is a reasonable and appropriate human inclination.

However, Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest push to codify such killings as hate crimes might be good political theater, but it will do little, if anything, to settle this summer’s turmoil over the relationship of law enforcement and those whom  officers are charged to protect.

Let us review: Killing a police officer in the state of Texas is a capital offense, punishable by life in prison or execution. In fact, any action against a police officer is subject to a higher level of punishment or “enhancement” than an ordinary citizen. The state is quite proficient at dealing with criminals who kill cops. For anyone looking for an express train to the Texas death chamber, that is certainly the ticket. Designating it as hate crime would not change any of those facts.

Abbott said Monday: “At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the state will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities.”

July 14, 2016 - Austin police officers stand at attention during the playing of Taps during a vigil held for the slain Dallas police officers held at the State Capitol Texas Peace Officer Memorial in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, July 14, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

July 14, 2016 – Austin police officers stand at attention during the playing of Taps during a vigil held for the slain Dallas police officers held at the State Capitol Texas Peace Officer Memorial in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, July 14, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Do we stand by law enforcement? Absolutely. But if a shooter is depraved enough to target officers, knowing that the consequences could amount to being blown up by a robot, dying in a shootout or a quick trip to the execution chamber, it’s unfathomable that the hate crime label would have any effect.

Abbott’s proposed “Police Protection Act” would also ratchet up the stakes of lesser charges involving officers. (Assaulting a police officer is already a higher-level offense than assaulting anyone else: a 3rd degree felony as compared to the misdemeanor.)

Removing the judiciary’s ability to consider circumstances in lesser cases, even in cases against officers gives me reason for pause.

I am interested in Sen. John Cornyn’s and Sen. Ted Cruz’s “Back the Blue” bill. Although I object to the death penalty, it would seem that if anything in this country qualifies as a capital offense the intentional targeting and killing of officers or federal judges would top the list.

Cornyn’s bill would expand the use of federal grants to improve  relations between law enforcement agencies and their communities, and allow officers to carry firearms in federal buildings. I would need to know more about the limitations on appeals, but the rest of the provisions appear to be solutions to real weaknesses in federal law. And as Dallas Police Chief David Brown and other police leaders faced with the pressures of keeping their communities and cops safe have stressed, the answer to stopping and preventing police shootings or more violence is more complicated than heated rhetoric from any side. Brown called on people who are protesting police to apply for jobs with his department so they can be part of the solution.

Which brings me back to Texas. What is Abbott’s aim?

If it is to prevent tragedies like Dallas and Baton Rouge, his efforts are misguided. Those willing to ambush and shoot someone in cold blood are typically ready to die for their so-called “cause.” Chief Art Acevedo has stressed that the best way to prevent police shootings and violence between police and the people they are sworn to protect is through efforts that bring both sides together.

If it is to signal to officers that we recognize the dangers of their work, there are other — better — ways to do that, including rolling back open carry legislation that law enforcement has said makes their jobs harder not easier. Or additional mental health support for officers, not just those who have already been involved in an incident. Or salary stipends grants  for departments who may not work for metro departments with better pay scales, but also face danger day-in-and-day-out.

I do not pretend to know how we stop this childish merry-go-round of “black lives” versus “blue lives.” Policy makers like Abbott are acting as though this unpleasant chapter will be resolved if enough people just pick “the right side.” In fact, choosing sides is part of the problem. This is not an elementary schoolyard dispute where the person with the most people on their team wins.

We have to properly identify our adversary before we can change this dangerous and destructive dynamic. This is not black lives versus blue lives. This is America versus injustice and fear.