JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—Gov. Eric Greitens is pushing to toughen Missouri’s penalties for attacking a police officer, reflecting similar efforts underway in other states and pleasing many in Missouri’s law enforcement community, which has been on the defensive since the police killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson more than two years ago.
Whether such changes are needed is debatable—among those who think they aren’t is a fellow Republican lawmaker and legal expert who helped craft revisions of the state’s criminal code that just took effect.
“We can feel like we’re doing a great thing and we’re really solving the problem,” said state Sen. Bob Dixon, a leader on criminal law and chair of the chamber’s committee on criminal laws. “This does not solve that problem.”
Greitens, a former Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL officer who ran multiple campaign ads featuring him firing large guns, pledged during his first major policy speech to help pass “the toughest laws in the country for anyone who assaults a peace officer,” even though Missouri already has harsher penalties for people who hurt cops or first responders.
He also spoke about a “Ferguson effect,” which allegedly has made officers more hesitant about performing their duties since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown due to a fear of being questioned later on. Brown’s killing by a white Ferguson officer sparked months of protests and led to a Department of Justice investigation of the department. The officer wasn’t charged.
Lawmakers in more than a dozen other states and Congress have proposed making it a hate crime to assault an officer. Louisiana became the first state to enact such legislation in May, allowing prosecutors to seek stronger penalties when police, firefighters and emergency medical crews are intentionally targeted because of their professions.
Almost every state, including Missouri, already has tougher penalties for assaults or other offenses against police, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A Missouri conviction for second-degree assault, in which someone is seriously injured or a lethal weapon is used, currently carries a sentence of one day to seven years in prison or a fine. When the victim is a police officer, the penalty is five to 15 years. Legislation proposed by GOP state Sen. Doug Libla would double it to 10 to 30 years or life behind bars.
Police deaths on the job have generally declined over the past four decades, from a recent high of 280 in 1974 to a low of 109 in 2013, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer deaths dating to the 18th century. But officer deaths have steadily risen since then, up to 136 in 2016. Those figures include attacks on police as well as accidental deaths such as car crashes.
Those pushing for stiffer penalties say they could serve as a deterrent. They point to an attack in Dallas last July in which a military veteran killed five officers at a protest, in what was the deadliest day for American law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. Ten days later, a former Marine killed three Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers.
Dixon, the Republican state senator, is skeptical about this argument. He said criminals who repeatedly break the law might take note of stricter punishments and be deterred by them, but that it probably wouldn’t apply to cases of shootings of police.
“The person who shoots a cop probably didn’t look up the statutes to see what the penalty was,” Dixon said. “It’s a one-time deal.”
Thomas B. Harvey, co-founder and executive director of the St. Louis civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders, said people who attack police already face tough prosecution and punishment in Missouri. He said the push by some politicians for even stiffer punishments amounts to “pandering to police officers and to a certain constituency,” and that it’s politically difficult to oppose such positions.
“Those folks run huge risk of being characterized as anti-police and having anti-police bias,” Harvey said. “It’s a no-risk, high-reward type of legislation for people. … I don’t think it meaningfully increases protections for police officers, either.”
Dan Isom, a former St. Louis police chief and endowed professor of policing and community at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said such policies are about more than deterrence.
“It’s important for the morale of police officers too for the public to say we value what you do, we are supportive of what you do, we place value on protecting you and doing what we can from a policy standpoint to make sure that you are protected in the work that you do,” Isom said. He later added: “Just because some people violate it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it stringent, make it a priority and hold people accountable for what they do.”