Minnesota city rethinks hate crime protection for police

A Minnesota city that pioneered the use of hate crime laws to protect police is having second thoughts, even as the idea is taking root around the Gopher State.

At least four Minnesota cities, more than any other state so far, have passed resolutions calling for attacks on police to be prosecuted as federal hate crimes.

“All you have to do is watch the news and see that it’s becoming in some areas open season on law enforcement,” Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm said before a unanimous Oct. 19 city council vote supporting expansion of the federal hate crimes statute.

But now the city that started it all — Red Wing — wants a do-over.

“I have to be honest, we didn’t really do the appropriate amount of discussion that we should about the nitty gritty details of it,” Lisa Bayley, a Red Wing city councilor and criminal defense attorney, said in an interview.

City councilors decided they jumped the gun in passing the resolution without adequately discussing the implications — and politics — of extending hate-crime protection to cops.

“It’s turned into a whole lot bigger thing than anybody ever expected,” said Red Wing City Councilor Peggy Rehder.

While affirming their support for police, the southeastern Minnesota city’s elected officials recently approved Bayley’s suggestion to reconsider and forward the resolution to the Red Wing Human Rights Commission.

“We have state and federal laws which enhance the penalties for crimes against police officers, as we should,” Bayley said. “…If you do add to the hate crimes statute in that way, by adding law enforcement as a protected class, I think it really takes away from the impact of the classes that are protected already.”

Austin, Cambridge and Oak Park Heights followed Red Wing in approving resolutions urging the Obama administration to address violence against police, increase funding and continuing the bulletproof vest program for local officers.

The cities responded to a call from the national Fraternal Order of Police to expand hate crimes to include individuals convicted of specifically targeting cops.

”We are pleased that these cities have voiced their support for their law enforcement officers,” said Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury in an emailed statement. “We have and will continue to encourage cities to take proactive steps to let the public know that they support their law enforcement officers.”

The number of police officers assaulted in Minnesota totaled 415 last year, double the incidents in 2010. The increasing concern for officer safety made the resolution a no-brainer for most council members.

“In light of what’s been going on in our country lately, we need to support our police departments,” said Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber at an Oct. 13 council meeting.

“In the current political and negative atmosphere in our society, the officers of Oak Park Heights Police appreciate the respect and support shown by the Oak Park Heights Council,” Oak Park Heights police chief Brian DeRosier said on the department’s Facebook page.

Following passage of the resolution on Sept. 28, Red Wing City Hall received curious calls and emails from around the country. Then, the Red Wing Police Department’s Facebook page became a lightning rod for critical comments on the resolution and law enforcement, mostly from outsiders.

“Why don’t you tell the public that 'the thin blue line' is actually code speak for keeping quiet and looking the other way when other cops are committing crimes, and crushing the Rights of Citizens?” one entry said.

“Quit killing people and treat everyone fairly and you may in a dozen or so years earn some respect,” another post read.

“I look forward to seeing this struck down in court,” another Facebook message said.

At the next council meeting, Red Wing reversed course, despite an appeal from the police chief.

“I believe the end result must be that the needless killing on all groups comes to an end,” Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman told councilors.

Red Wing Mayor Dan Bender, in voting to reconsider the measure, said: “We don’t need any more division. My fear is, what we have unintentionally done by passing this resolution last week has done nothing to help mend that division.” 

Word of Red Wing’s reconsideration caught an Austin city councilor by surprise. But this time, none of the other cities appears to be following Red Wing’s example.

“I don’t know why, what would make them pull back on it a little bit, I’m not certain on that,” said Austin City Councilor Stephen King, who’s also director of Mower County Correctional Services. “But as it goes, a proclamation that says you’re hoping for this to be added to the hate crime statute, I don’t see a downside to it.”