AUSTIN (CN) – Threats and violence against Texas judges and police will be prosecuted as hate crimes under legislation passed this week, making good on the governor’s promise of “severe justice” for people who target law enforcement.
House Bill 2908 owes its existence to Micah Xavier Johnson, who shot and killed five Dallas police officers and wounded nine others during a July 7, 2016 march protesting the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
After a two-hour standoff, Dallas police deployed a robot armed with a brick of C-4 that exploded and killed Johnson, an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. As police tried to negotiate with him, he reportedly doodled on the wall with his own blood and said he wanted to kill more police.
Gov. Greg Abbott rapidly proposed the Police Protection Act to make it a hate crime to harm an officer.
“While our state and the nation continue to mourn the heroes lost in Dallas, it is time for us to unite as Texans to say, ‘No more.’ The men and women in uniform risk their lives every day to protect the public, and it is time we show them the State of Texas has their back,” Abbott said in a July 18 statement about his bill.
The state House and Senate both approved House Bill 2908 on Tuesday and sent it to Abbott. As of Sept. 1, penalties for threatening peace officers will be raised from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by 180 days to two years in prison.
The bill also increases by one level the penalties for crimes against police and judges, if prosecutors can prove they were targeted them because of their jobs. Texas law has similar enhancements for crimes done out of bias against a person’s race, gender, disability, religion and age and sexual preference.
Critics say hate-crime laws are not supposed to protect occupations, and there are already enhancements on the books in Texas for crimes against police.
Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback is the legislative director for the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. “We certainly understand there’s going to be people who don’t agree with the law. And [with] law enforcement, period. But to murder and assault us because you hate us doing our job and observing the rule of law, why can’t that be hate crime?” asked Louderback, a fourth-term sheriff. He oversees 11 deputies in Edna, Jackson County’s seat, 100 miles southwest of Houston.
Louderback acknowledged the Dallas shootings inspired the bill, but said it’s also about law enforcement gaining back the public’s respect.
“The overall attitude on police in the last several years has been tough and bad. A lot of bad rhetoric and a lot of demeaning of police,” he said in a telephone interview.
The bill also calls for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to start a children’s education campaign about the value of law enforcement.
Judges were added to the bill in a May 12 amendment, a nod to state Judge Julie Kocurek, who was shot four times in the driveway of her Austin home in November 2015. She returned to the bench after enduring 26 surgeries and collecting a $500,000 settlement because Travis County put her at risk
She testified to a Texas Senate committee in March, on a bill to beef up courthouse security, that two weeks before she was shot, Travis County officials got a tip that a defendant in her court was going to kill her.
“My own bailiff, who sits 20 feet from my desk, knew of the threat. He looked at the email and he did not think it was appropriate to tell me,” Kocurek told the committee.
Her testimony helped push through Senate Bill 42. It will establish a director of security for the Office of Court Administration and security training for judges and court staff.
A report about every incident involving courthouse security must be sent to the court administration office, and judges’ personal information will be removed from public records under the bill.