Police Officers Should Never Be Considered Hate Crime Victims

I’ve heard the Fraternal Order of Police assert the following three times now: police officers should be a protected group under 18 U.S. Code § 249, the law establishing what constitutes a hate crime. My immediate reaction is to dismiss their suggestion out of hand, but every idea deserves a fair hearing. Let’s see what the FOP wants, why they want it, and whether they have good reasons for wanting it.

Content Warning

Before proceeding any further, I must note the following: I don’t think there’s any good case for the FOP position. There will be times in this article, especially towards the end, where people who are sympathetic to the police or are police officers themselves may find themselves angered by my arguments. There’s no shame in that, since this is a sensitive issue. Please know that this argument is not meant to devalue the lives of police officers; that is not entailed by my arguments in the slightest. Nevertheless, prepare yourself for the possibility that you will be offended, yet also know that I welcome your criticisms (as long as they’re about the arguments). With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

The Fraternal Order Of Police’s Argument

As already stated, the FOP wants to expand the applicability of hate crime law to include law enforcement officers. The result would be harsher penalties for individuals who attack and/or kill police officers simply because they hate police officers. They justify the proposal thusly: in virtue of the risk police are placed in because of their jobs, they deserve as much protection as possible. Since the penalties for a hate crime are steep, this is thought to act as a deterrent. They assert this expansion’s necessity because they believe law enforcement officers are increasingly targeted across the nation. Supposedly, prior expansions to the law’s applicability were motivated by suspicion that certain groups “were being targeted as victims of violence”.

I’m afraid the FOP stands on quick sand. As stated previously, they believe that since police officers are being increasingly targeted, they must be protected by hate crime laws. Part of the reason they choose ‘hate crime laws’ is that they believe they are effective at deterring violent crimes motivated by group-specific hatred. In reality, on-the-job police deaths have been declining, and it’s also a sad reality that hate crime laws are not effective deterrents.

Is There A Better Argument?

With that being said, it might still be the case that police officers ought to be protected under hate crime laws. I argued in “Discrimination Revised” that group-oriented discrimination has several defining features. First, someone treats the members of one social group differently relative to another social group. Second, this treatment (usually) leads to disparate outcomes for the victim relative to the non-discriminated party. Third, the discriminator behaved the way they did not just because the victim belongs to some social group, but because they believe the victim has some trait closely connected with that social group. Fourth and finally, the discriminator’s behavior is actually poorly justified.

The social groups we’re concerned with are socially significant ones. Such a group is one wherein membership has wide-reaching social implications (e.g. relationships, job prospects) or implications for the member’s overall comportment and personal capacities. We’ll assume that police officers and the groups covered by hate laws constitute socially significant groups. The FOP can now propose an argument like this:

  1. If G constitutes a socially significant group, G can be discriminated against.
  2. If G can be discriminated against, G should be protected under hate crime laws.
  3. Police officers constitute a socially significant group.
  4. Thus, police officers should be protected under hate crime laws.

There are several virtues to this argument. It’s logically valid and invulnerable to statistical objections. This is fortunate. Not only was their first argument vulnerable to such a rebuttal, but statistics are easily manipulated. It also appeals to the modern intuition that discrimination, no matter which group it happens to, is wrong. Furthermore, it subtly appeals to the notion of fairness: if groups x, y, and z can be victims of hate crimes, and so can group w, we have to include w under hate crime laws. Hence, this is an initially persuasive argument.

Nevertheless, I remain unpersuaded. The argument widens the range of who can be considered a hate crime victim far too widely. There are many groups that can be considered socially significant, such as single parents or college students. On this argument, they, along with every socially significant group, would have to be protected under hate crime laws. Hate crimes seem particularly egregious, so giving them such a wide breadth would cheapen their significance.


However, this problem can be solved with a minor adjustment.

  1. If G constitutes a socially significant group, G can be discriminated against.
  2. If G can be discriminated against and tends to be subject to violent discrimination, G should be protected under hate crime laws.
  3. Police officers constitute a socially significant group.
  4. Police officers tend to be the victims of violent discrimination.
  5. Thus, police officers should be protected under hate crime laws.

This argument lets us exclude some groups from hate crime laws, thus preventing such laws from being cheapened. It also appeals to the two moral intuitions that helped make the first argument persuasive. However, the “tends to” is problematic. First, it is vague: the threshold for determining that the ‘tendency’ exists will always be arbitrary; there can be no a priori principle for establishing the ‘tendency’, since we’re concerned with an empirical phenomenon. Second, if a group’s candidacy for being a hate crime victim depends solely on their tendency to be victimized as such, their protection under such laws is shaky at best. If statistical evidence indicates that certain groups are no longer being relevantly victimized, we would lack reason to continue protecting them under hate crime laws. It might be true that they should be protected under such laws, but we’d simply lack the relevant antecedent reason to believe as much. Third, as already argued above, it seems like on-the-job police deaths are declining. That’s prima facie evidence to believe they aren’t usually subjected to violent discrimination. Thus, according to this argument, we can’t conclude that police officers should be protected under hate crime laws.

“Tends to be subject to” can be replaced with “is particularly at risk for”, but there are two problems with that. First, it’s not entirely clear how we ought to go about classifying a group as being “at risk”. Second, and perhaps more troubling, is the fact that not every group currently protected by hate crime laws is particularly at risk. Christianity, for instance, is a well-established and warmly-regarded religion in America. If Americans’ attitudes towards Christianity are at all indicative of their “at risk” status, they don’t appear to be at risk. Thus, on the modified argument, we don’t have a reason to protect Christians with hate crime laws. This, obviously, does not seem right, so the “at risk” argument fails.

The Big Difference

Even setting aside the problems raised above, police officers don’t seem to possess the same kind of social significance that groups like religions, sexes, and nationalities do. This can be seen with a little understanding of America’s social ontology, by which I mean the story America tells itself about what makes up our shared social network at the most basic level. This is a rough sketch, so bear with me.

It is common knowledge amongst Americans that the individual is the primary element of our shared social network, which is evidenced by the fact that our civil rights are primarily concerned with the individual. However, social groups are also given an important place in our society, since they are addressed by some of our amendments and laws. Those groups are important in virtue of the role they play in the lives of individuals (i.e. individuals receive priority). For our purposes, the ways in which they are important to not need be delineated exhaustively. There’s only one way that concerns us: how we understand ourselves and locate ourselves relative to one another, socially speaking, at the most basic level.

Group affiliations like religion, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and race help us locate ourselves relative to one another in very fundamental/basic ways. For instance, if you and I met in person, I’d immediately get some idea about your sex and gender identity, some inkling about your nationality and race, and I might be able to tell if you’re differently-abled. I may not know your religion right off the bat, but I know that if you have religious beliefs, they probably inform your self-understanding, comportment, and behavior to some degree. In fact, all the other group affiliations mentioned above do the same thing to varying degrees, whether you’re aware of them or not. The group affiliations mentioned above are also relatively stable, or at least not easily changed, and ever-present (consciously or unconsciously). Thus, they allow us to easily “locate” ourselves — know where we stand compared to other people, how we’re going to behave and comport ourselves, etc — in every social circumstance.

None of this is to say that other group affiliations don’t help us “locate” ourselves. However, most of our group affiliations do not play the same kind of basic, fundamental role. For instance, the way I located myself as a middle schooler was different from how I located myself as a college student, which is different from how I locate myself as a fairly recent college graduate. Those ways of locating myself were also fairly limited in scope (i.e. they were only relevant in certain situations), just like the way we locate ourselves as people with certain careers is fairly limited in scope. There will be exceptions to that rule, of course, depending on whether or not someone takes to heart the values (they believe to be) associated with their career. Nevertheless, even if that is the case, such affiliations do not facilitate hair-trigger categorizations, nor are they the affiliations first responsible — and therefore relatively permanent and constant — for informing our self-understanding.

I propose that the reason the federal hate crime law ought to protect the groups it does is that they are fundamental to our lives qua individuals in America. A crime motivated by group-directed hatred, then, can be understood as an intentional attack against America’s very social fabric. That explains why hate crimes are felt to be so serious on a humanitarian level. On this view, the argument for which groups should be protected by hate crime laws would go something like this:

  1. If G constitutes a socially significant group and is fundamental to individual Americans’ lives, then G should be protected by hate crime laws.
  2. X constitutes a socially significant group and is fundamental to individual Americans’ lives.
  3. Thus, X should be protected by hate crime laws. 

As you can likely guess, belonging to the group ‘police officers’ doesn’t fit the bill. ‘Police officer’ qua personal social locater isn’t primary to one’s self-understanding and social location in the way that, say, a person’s gender identity is. It is, rather, something that has to be added later to a person’s life. It does not have a privileged formative role, in other words. Furthermore, an attack against a police officer animated by hatred for police officers cannot be construed as an intentional attack against America’s social fabric, although it can certainly be construed as an attack against civil order and rule of law. This does not make the attack is any less inhumane or reprehensible, simply that it would be disingenuous to claim that an attack against a police officer qua police officer holds the same kind of significance as an attack against a black person qua black person.

This leads us to a new argument, one which vindicates this article’s title.

  1. If members of G are hate crime victims, then G’s place in America’s fundamental social fabric is under attack.
  2. The group “police officers” (Group P) does not have a place in America’s fundamental social fabric.
  3. Group P cannot be attacked qua part of America’s fundamental social fabric.
  4. Thus, Group P cannot be hate crime victims.

So, there we have it: the Fraternal Order of Police doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to their proposition.

Closing Remarks

If any people in my audience are police officers or sympathetic to police officers, I want to reiterate what I said in the beginning: by arguing against the FOP’s position, I do not intend to devalue the lives of police officers or claim that they do not have an important place in our society. Their lives are important, just like the role they play in American society is important. Nevertheless, we should not go around claiming that certain laws ought to apply to them simply because we either feel like they should or because we feel like they would be effective. In the end, it seems like hate crime laws actually aren’t a great deterrent, and it seems like the gulf between “being a police officer” and “being black” or “being a woman” (for example) is simply too wide when it comes to informing the lives of individual Americans. In the end, we would be intellectually dishonest by claiming that they should be protected by hate crime laws.

There’s my argument against counting police officers in hate crime laws. What do you think? Share your counterarguments or supporting points below. They’re more than welcome.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s