Police Nationwide Make Arrests for Social Media Posts While Pushing for New Hate Crime Legislation to Protect Law Enforcement
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Police departments around the country have responded to the killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge earlier this month by arresting citizens for making threats and posts sympathetic to the shooters on social media.
In Norwalk, Connecticut, 34 year old Kurt Vanzuuk allegedly made Facebook posts referring to the Dallas shooter as “a hero” and calling for more police officers to be shot. He was arrested on July 9th, charged with “inciting injury to persons or property,” and held on $20,000 bail.
In Evergreen Park, Illinois, a woman was arrested after allegedly posting to Facebook, “I have no problem shooting a cop for simple traffic stop cuz they’d have no problem doing it to me.” Twenty four year old Jenesis Reynolds was charged with disorderly conduct and later released on her own recognizance.
In St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputies arrested a man on July 20th for allegedly making online threats against police officers. Twenty four year old Victor Pablo has been charged with terrorizing and threatening a public official.
Minneapolis Police are reportedly investigating a vague threat made against their department via Facebook comments on a USA Today article. Sheriff’s deputies arrested a man on July 20th after being “swamped” with warnings from citizens on social media.
In Racine, Wisconsin, police arrested a man for allegedly calling on social media sites for black men to “strap it up” and target law enforcement in their homes. Forty three year old Byron Cowan was arrested by local police and FBI agents for making terroristic threats.
— Paul Gottinger (@PaulGottinger) July 15, 2016
In Detroit, four men were arrested for making Facebook posts referring to the Dallas shooter as a “hero,” declaring that such an attack on police “needs to happen more often,” saying that it is time “to wage war,” and calling to “kill all white cops.” Police Chief James Craig said “I know this is a new issue, but I want these people charged with crimes… I’ve directed my officers to prepare warrants for these four individuals, and we’ll see which venue is the best to pursue charges.” As reported by the Detroit News, the threatening posts were discovered by the department’s counter-terrorism unit “while monitoring social media.”
In Buffalo, New York, a man was arrested for allegedly creating a Facebook post saying “Let’s start killing police, see how they like it.” The suspect, Arthur Jordan, also reportedly posted emojis of a handgun pointing at a police officer. Buffalo Police arrested Mr. Jordan for charges of criminal weapons possession, but federal charges were later brought for threatening police officers across state lines. Although his attorney asked that the federal charges be thrown out on first amendment grounds, the judge ruled during arraignment on July 21st that there was sufficient probable cause for a crime to have been committed and held Mr. Jordan on $500,000 bail.
Even before the latest round of violence against police, arrests were being made for online threats. Rolando Medina allegedly made posts to an unknown social media site promising “to destroy Perth Amboy police headquarters” in New Jersey. The 30 year old was arrested for “cyber harassment” on June 20th, held on $2,500 bail and required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before release according to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
Although the charges are different from case to case, these arrests all appear to have been made based on a combination of citizens’ tips and police monitoring of social media for threats against law enforcement.
Online speech is protected by the first amendment, and defense attorneys in several of these cases have claimed that these comments were made in the heated context following recent videos of police appearing to indefensibly kill young black men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. They argue that the threatening posts lack the intent necessary to rise to the level of a “true threat,” a legal classification that does not receive the same protections as other speech. Courts have ruled that credible, specific threats of death or serious injury that can be believed by a reasonable person are not protected under the first amendment.
“War on Cops?”
These types of threats against police come at a time when many in law enforcement feel under siege from the public and the media. But statistics show that attacks on law enforcement remain at historic lows.
According to a study by the American Enterprise Institute, recent years have been the safest in history, with 2013 and 2015 having the lowest numbers of police deaths by gunfire. More police officers were killed in the line of duty from traffic accidents than by firearms in 2015 according to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, and routine traffic stops resulted in more gun deaths (7) than ambush attacks like Dallas and Baton Rouge (6).
A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2014, the total number of “law enforcement workers” killed on the job (106, including accidents) was less than the number of fatal injuries for categories including “grounds maintenance workers” (158), “first-line supervisors of sales workers” (124), and “miscellaneous agricultural workers” (146). These figures are all dwarfed by the statistics for “construction trades workers,” at 625. Yet the 38 fatalities (out of a staggering 979) for motor vehicle operators listed under “shooting by other person — intentional” do not draw nearly the same level of moral outrage as the 39 killings of police officers under the same column. There is no similarly complete and official tally for citizens shot and killed by police officers nationwide, although the self-reported statistics collected by the FBI number in the hundreds every year.
But these facts have not prevented the narrative of a “War on Cops” from taking hold with political leaders and police officials. In fact, a poll conducted by Rasmussen last September found “most [58%] voters now believe the police are under attack in America and blame politicians critical of the cops for fanning the flames.”
President Obama called the targeting of police in Dallas “a hate crime,” and told senior members of the Fraternal Order of Police that the shooter would have faced charges with this sentencing enhancement if he had survived. The President reportedly went on to compare the killing of police officers to last year’s mass shooting in Charleston, North Carolina, where a historic African-American church was targeted by a violent white supremacist, killing nine.
Speaking at last week’s Republican National Convention, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said, “I would like to make something very clear; Blue Lives Matter in America!” Monday night’s convention theme was “Make America Safe Again,” and Sheriff Clarke continued his speech to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for creating “anarchy,” and celebrated the earlier acquittal of Baltimore Police Lieutenant Brian Rice for the death of Freddie Gray last year. These remarks were delivered to sustained applause at the GOP convention.
Police Protection Legislation Sweeping the Country
This rhetoric of a war on police has been used to extend extraordinary new protections to law enforcement.
Louisiana House Bill 953 was introduced by state Representative Lance Harris following the 2015 shooting of a sheriff’s deputy in Texas. Also known as the Blue Live Matter Bill, the objective of the bill is to “amend the provisions of law regarding hate crimes” to include law enforcement, placing crimes against the occupation of police officers under the same sentencing enhancement as attacks based on race or religion. Governor John Bel Edwards signed HB 953 into law in May of this year despite criticism from the Anti-Defamation League that it would needlessly “water down” existing hate crime protections. Those convicted under the new law will have up to an additional 5 years added to their sentences.
Another Blue Lives Matter Bill was introduced in Pennsylvania on July 13th by Rep. Frank Burns. State lawmakers in Tennessee began efforts to pass such legislation in June, promising to introduce 3 new bills to protect police in the upcoming 2017 legislative session. Even more “Blue Lives Matter” hate crime legislation has been proposed this month in Kentucky, Florida, and Wisconsin. Similar legislation was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in March by Rep. Ken Buck.
At the national level, the Back the Blue Act was introduced to the Senate on July 13th, less than a week after the Dallas police shooting. It creates mandatory minimum sentencing laws for attacks on law enforcement officials employed or funded by the federal government, proscribing sentences of 30 years for their murder, 10 years for attempted murder, and 2 years for an assault resulting in bodily injury to an officer, “no matter how temporary.” Although it is already a crime to assault federal law enforcement, by adding the category of “federally funded public safety officer,” the bill would include police, corrections, parole, and probation officers in any agencies that receive federal financial assistance. This would potentially open up tens of thousands of local cases annually to additional federal charges with exactly the type of strict minimum sentencing requirements that have been roundly criticized by criminal justice reform advocates for decades. The bill is sponsored jointly by Sens. John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and Thom Tillis.
Another piece of legislation, the Thin Blue Line Act, was introduced last September by Sens. Jeff Sessions and Pat Toomey. The purpose of the bill was to amend “the federal criminal code to make the killing or attempted killing of a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or other first responder an aggravating factor in death penalty determinations.” Federal law already allows this to be considered in favor of the death penalty for the murder of federal law enforcement and prosecutors, but the new bill would extend this determination to cover local officials as well. An identical version was introduced in the House by Rep. David Jolly in February of 2015.
Even these legislative deterrents requiring sentencing enhancements, mandatory minimums, and aggravating factors still do not go far enough for some would-be protectors of law enforcement. During a speech in New Hampshire last December, Republican presidential candidate Donald Drumpf promised to make the killing of police officers automatically a capital offense.
“One of the first things I do, in terms of executive order if I win, will be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country — out to the world — that anybody killing a policeman, policewoman, a police officer — anybody killing a police officer, the death penalty,” Drumpf said while accepting an award from the New England Police Benevolent Association. “It’s going to happen, OK?”
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