At first glance, the First Responders Act of 2017 currently being considered by the state House seems to have the noblest of intentions: It offers tax breaks for firefighters and rescue workers, exempts widows of emergency personnel from paying property taxes, and establishes funding for emergency workers who find themselves in financial need.
But the bill includes another provision that’s concerning to citizens like Robert Dawkins, director at the SAFE Coalition of North Carolina. Within the legislation is a proposal to make crimes against police officers a felony hate crime
“They’re putting this into the bill that has some protections and things for law enforcement, but then they tack this ‘Blue Lives Matter’ part down in the bill, and so when groups like us try to fight it, it’s hard,” Dawkins said.
Opponents argue there already are laws on the books offering extra protection for officers and stringent punishment of offenders. Dawkins said the bill unfairly targets members of African American and marginalized communities by making them vulnerable to prosecution.
Ian Mance, staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said labeling acts against police hate crimes could easily be abused.
“This proposal that would allow them to elevate these skirmishes into felony hate crime charges essentially really, I think, changes the dynamic in an unhelpful way,” Mance said.
Dawkins explained how the provision would put minority communities at additional risk.
“Every time that somebody is in an interaction with a police officer, it can pretty much be deemed a hate crime,” he said.
Opponents add that current North Carolina hate crime law does not offer protection to members of the LGBTQ community.
Similar bills have been proposed in other Southern states, including one that just passed in Kentucky last week and another that was introduced in Mississippi.