A New Jersey lawmaker introduced a bill Friday that would classify attacks on police officers as hate crimes, but only if an individual physically injures, or threatens to kill or injure, an officer.
Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) clarified the bill's language after the Inquirer reported earlier this month that New Jersey's existing bias-intimidation statute, if applied to police officers, could cause even people who just argue with an officer to be charged with a hate crime.
That possibility drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said Friday the amended legislation still won't fix a broader issue: frayed relationships between police and communities.
"This bill is not going to help bridge that divide," he said.
Kyrillos' staff sought input from various "community groups" on the bill to clarify its language, said Tony Perry, his director of legislative affairs.
Rosmarin said the ACLU was not among those groups, and Perry said Friday he did not have a list of them.
Perry said the groups recommended that the hate-crime statute should apply mostly to physical attacks on law enforcement officials, "as opposed to just any random altercation that can happen on the street," such as a verbal dispute.
Loretta Winters, president of the NAACP's Gloucester County chapter, said that while she supports police officers in her area, the legislation still does not make sense.
"I don't know why they need double, triple protection when they already have good protection," she said.
In New Jersey, injuring or putting an officer "in fear of imminent serious bodily injury," as state law reads, automatically leads to charges of aggravated assault, a crime that can result in several years in prison.
That is a step above simple assault, a disorderly-persons offense usually handled in the same court as traffic tickets. That can result in six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
As for hate-crime protections, the state currently offers them to people targeted for their race, gender, religion, disability, and sexual orientation.
An individual who commits a crime knowing it would threaten a protected group faces two charges: one for the crime, the second for bias intimidation. The second charge is generally one degree higher than the first, raising the likelihood of higher fines and longer prison sentences.
The bias-intimidation statute used to prosecute hate crimes in New Jersey encompasses more than 60 offenses, from harassment to murder.
Kyrillos' bill, however, would require the state Attorney General's Office to create guidelines specifically for police officers, so that only physically injuring or threatening to injure or kill an officer could be classified as a hate crime for that group.
The bill would also extend such protections to firefighters and emergency responders.
Lawmakers in other states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Kentucky, have also called for classifying attacks on police officers as hate crimes. Louisiana enacted such a law in May, though it does not go into effect until Monday.
Demands to better protect law enforcement officials have grown since five police officers were fatally shot in Dallas on July 7 by an apparently racially motivated former soldier during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march.
Less than two weeks later, on July 17, a gunman in Baton Rouge, La., ambushed and killed three police officers as they responded to 911 calls about a man walking outside with a weapon.
Both incidents occurred as civil rights groups and demonstrators across the nation protested the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile, a passenger in a vehicle stopped in Falcon Heights, Minn., and Alton Sterling, a street vendor, in Baton Rouge.
Citing a lack of trust between police and the communities they serve, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) on July 15 announced legislation that would require the state Attorney General's Office, rather than a county prosecutor, to investigate police-involved deaths.
Right now, a prosecutor's office in the county where the death happened investigates whether an officer used justified force. The office can then take the case to a grand jury, or decline to press charges.
Sweeney said his bill could prevent potential conflicts of interest between prosecutor's offices and the police departments they investigate, since people in both agencies may know or work with each other.