By Taylor Knopf
As states around the country introduce and pass “Blue Lives Matter” laws, North Carolina has its own version worked into the omnibus “First Responders Act of 2017.”
House Bill 181 deals with a myriad of issues related to first responders, but section seven would classify assault against a police officer, emergency medical technician or firefighter as a “hate crime.”
This part of the bill was added by one of its primary sponsors Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Bryson City), a retired Charlotte fire captain.
When asked what prompted the “hate crime” section of the bill, he referenced the “Blue Lives Matter” laws passed in Louisiana and Kentucky. These bills, introduced in other states, were submitted with incidents such as the 2016 police shooting in Dallas in mind. In that situation, a man targeted police, killing five officers and wounding another nine.
The laws and proposed pieces of legislation seek to include law enforcement officers as a protected class and increase the penalties for assaults.
“The worst day of their lives”
North Carolina mental and behavioral health advocates worry that if this becomes law, it could negatively impact people who experience a mental health crisis.
“The way the bill is currently written, there is a concern that a person who needs help for their condition could end up getting charged with a felony,” said policy analyst Matthew Herr with Disability Rights NC. “It’s important that we don’t have unintended consequences.”
Under House Bill 181, an assault on emergency personnel carries a Class H felony charge with it. A separate piece of legislation House Bill 492, would also increase felony penalties for various types of assaults on any law officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician.
“For a lot of folks with behavioral health conditions, the day they interact with first responders is the worst day of their lives,” Herr said.
Clampitt said he understands the issue of behavioral health crises is important, but his experience with first responder assault didn’t involve people with mental health problems.
“When I was working the fire service, I had three assaults, and it wasn’t mental illness or that kind of thing,” he said. “It was people who were using illegal substances or just because they could.”
“We are seeing acts across the state and nationwide on law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel,” he added. “Premeditated acts to harm first responders.”
According to the 2015 Federal Bureau of Investigation crime report, 50,212 officers nationwide were assaulted while performing their duties that year. About 28 percent of those assaulted were injured. The FBI collected assault data from 11,961 law enforcement agencies that serve about 75 percent of the nation’s population.
Neither the North Carolina Department of Justice nor the Department of Public Safety tracks assaults on first responders. Officials with those agencies said counties may collect those data.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of NC Sheriffs’ Association, said the goal is to get the number of officer assaults to zero.
“Any time it happens is too often,” he said. “Being the victim of an assault is not within the job description of a first responder.”
When asked if first responder assaults should be classified as hate crimes, Caldwell said that is up to the General Assembly.
There are currently a dozen laws on the books that carry heavy penalties for various types of assault on a first responder. Assault on a firefighter or medical personnel inflicting physical injury is a Class I felony which carries a maximum of two years in prison. If someone uses a deadly weapon other than a firearm, it’s a Class H felony. If they use a firearm, it goes up to a Class F felony. If death is intended during any assault, charges go up again to a Class C felony which carries up to 19 years of prison time.
But classifying something as a “hate crime” is different.
The FBI tracks hate crimes and defines them as “motivated by biases based on race, gender, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and ethnicity.”
If passed, House Bill 181 would heighten the felony penalty for each type of assault. Being convicted of a hate crime carries with is increased penalties and longer possible jail time. This would be the only profession to date listed under the hate crime classification.
Rep. Graig Meyer, (D-Hillsborough), one of two social workers in the legislature, worked part-time for three years with Chapel Hill police intervening with mental health crises.
Meyer said while first responders do need protection because of their “inherently risky” jobs, he believes hate crime protections should be reserved for “marginalized members of society.
Additionally, Meyer said when someone is in a mental health crisis and physically acting out, they may harm someone. But he says that they should not be arrested and charged for something that’s a manifestation of their mental illness.
“The idea is when somebody can’t help themselves, you shouldn’t punish them for that, you should try to help them get better,” he said.
Meyer gave examples of situations in which he helped police intervene.
One night, he was called to a scene where a UNC student had jumped out of the window of a moving car and hit her head. The girl had mixed alcohol with her psychiatric medications. Meyer said that during her meltdown, the student thought she was in so much danger that she jumped out of the car.
“When the police arrived, she was in such an impaired mental state not just from alcohol, but from having a psychological break, that she was aggressive towards anyone that came at her,” Meyer recalled.
One officer stepped in her direction and she took a swing at him. Meyer said the police didn’t try to restrain her, but let him intervene. Had she been in the middle of traffic instead of the sidewalk, the situation could have gone very differently, Meyer said. She could have harmed someone.
Meyer said that was one of the easier mental health calls he responded to with police.