WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday that would toughen federal penalties against people who intentionally target law enforcement officers in attacks, including ambushes.
“Sadly, we’ve seen a recent rash and an increase in violence against officers especially in ambush-style attacks," Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., said Wednesday. “We as members of Congress must show the law enforcement community across this country that we support them and the important work that they do day in and day out. We must also show that those who wish to target police officers with violence that those attacks will not be tolerated."
The House voted 382 to 35 late Wednesday to approve the “Protect and Serve Act of 2018.”
The measure proposed by Rutherford, a former Duval County sheriff, and Florida Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, would make it a federal crime to intentionally assault a police officer with punishment up to 10 years. The punishment could be life in prison if the officer is killed or kidnapped.
"We cannot ask our officers to do this work while failing to cope with the consequences,'' Demings, a former Orlando police chief, tweeted earlier Wednesday. "We must take care of them so they can take care of us."
A similar measure in the Senate proposed by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., would make it a hate crime. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act makes it a federal crime to assault someone based on their perceived race, color, religion or national origin. The Senate bill would include the "status of the person as a law enforcement officer.''
The House vote comes during National Police Week when the nation honors fallen law enforcement officers.
National Police Week brings together thousands of law enforcement officers and family members of officers killed last year in the line of duty. The week includes a candlelight vigil Sunday and the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service where President Trump spoke Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol.
“We must end the attacks on our police and we must end them right now,’’ said Trump. “We believe criminals who kill our police should get the death penalty.”
Trump, who supports the bill, said on the most alarming crimes against officers is an ambush.
“I have directed the Justice Department to do everything in its power to defend the lives of American law enforcement,’’ he said.
Several law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations, support the legislation.
But some civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, call it unnecessary and say it duplicates many state laws already in place.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called it a "misguided approach to justice system reform."
"The Protect and Serve Act inappropriately creates a new – yet duplicative – crime for offenses that 'target law enforcement,' furthering division between law enforcement and the communities they serve," she said in a statement.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called it a "wasted opportunity" to address other struggles in communities across the country.
He said there should be more efforts to improve relations between law enforcement and communities of color.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the majority whip, urged support for the bill. He said he knows all too well the value of police protection.
Scalise was shot in the hip last summer while practicing with Republican colleagues for a congressional baseball game.
Capitol Police officers, who shot the gunman, are credited with preventing the deaths of Scalise and dozens of lawmakers and staffers.
"They deserve this protection," said Scalise, who is still recovering and used two canes to leave the House chamber Wednesday. "We’ve seen too often in the last year, in the last two years where police officers were targeted by people because they wore a badge."
"We need to stand with them," he continued. “We need to make it crystal clear that we’re going to be standing with them and we’re going to have their back because more often than not they’re the ones who have our back."