- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A proposal to add law enforcement officers as a protected class to New Mexico’s hate crimes law will be considered by lawmakers in the next legislative session after a committee weighed the proposed law change Wednesday.

The proposal introduced by Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, is one of a number of proposed justice system reforms for the next legislative session that are being drafted in response to a string of high-profile crimes in the Albuquerque area.

Those crimes include the shooting deaths of Rio Rancho Officer Gregg Benner in May and Albuquerque Officer Daniel Webster in October, and a shooting that injured Albuquerque Officer Lou Golson during a traffic stop in January.

“There are instances where police officers are being attacked simply because they are police officers,” Gentry said. “It’s become clear that over the course of the summer and fall that our protectors need additional protection.”

The proposal comes as law enforcement advocates say outrage over some officer-involved shootings has sparked anti-police rhetoric, and police departments across the U.S., including Albuquerque’s, attempt to rebuild public trust amid accusations that some officers engaged in a pattern of excessive force.

The Fraternal Order of Police has called for expanding the federal hate crimes statute to include police.

Under New Mexico’s current hate crimes law, prosecutors can seek sentencing enhancements for attacks on minorities, the elderly, disabled and others that are motivated by prejudice against them because of their race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, age or ancestry.

“Status as a law enforcement officer” would be added to that list under Gentry’s proposal, which is supported by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

Albuquerque Police Officers Association Vice President Shaun Willoughby said the union also supports a measure that would protect police under the hate crimes statute. However, it doesn’t want to see every case of an assailant resisting arrest to be prosecuted as a hate crime, he said.

“I think the real heart of the conversation is that society as a whole is losing respect for police officers,” Willoughby said. “It’s not a fix all.”

He cited the October 2013 case of a 35-year-old Albuquerque man who authorities say shot at officers from a stolen police car and had a tattoo that said “cop killer” as an example of a crime that possibly could have been included under the proposed hate crimes law if the suspect survived. Christopher Chase, the suspect, died after crashing the stolen vehicle at a gasoline station.

Gentry, meanwhile, cited the shootings of Benner, Webster and Golson as cause for the proposed legislation, though in those cases police reports indicate the alleged shooters may have opened fire in an attempt to escape arrest.

Democratic lawmakers said at a press conference last month that they would consider voting for the proposed law, but on Wednesday questioned whether enhancing attacks on police under the hate crime statute was the right approach.

Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, said while he supported additional penalties for attacks on police, he believed hate crimes laws were designed to protect citizens who historically were targets of attacks motivated by hate or victims of civil rights violations.

“I don’t think this fits,” Maestas said. “My point is that it shouldn’t matter if (suspects) are battering them to get away, or they are deranged by drugs, or they hate them. It should matter that they did it.”

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