Law enforcement officers today continue to be put under a microscope when it comes to responses to incidents that are believed to be racially motivated.

Recently, Connecticut has had three incidents with reference to criminal actions based on the suspect’s perceived racial bias making headlines.

The response from the law enforcement agencies that were investigating these racially motivated incidents has now been put into headlines in an editorial published by the Hartford Courant.

The focus of the editorial was not to address the difficulty for law enforcement officers to weigh constitutionally protected speech with that of speech that may arise to a hate crime, but the author instead focused on the three different outcomes that resulted from these cases.

Interestingly, it did not appear that the author had any law enforcement experience to base their opinion on. In looking at the three incidents the author uses for this article, it is noted:

“…in only one of the three was a hate crime charge filed, although it easily could have been in the other two. “

In looking at the available facts of the other two cases, this blanket statement surely puts the reader in a position to think:

“Why did the officer investigating those cases not charge the person with a hate crime? Is the officer protecting someone?”

The publishing of a sentence like this seems to be anti-law enforcement, and surely is degrading to the trust the public has in their law enforcement officers to apply the law with neutrality.  The author highlighted a disturbance in Manchester where a woman allegedly told:

“…a woman and her daughters, who were wearing hijabs, that they should go back to their own country, among other things. “

The author uses this case to show a discrepancy in the police response, but they failed to explore the reasons the case was not investigated as a hate crime.

There was no outlining of the facts of the case, a case that was thoroughly covered by a reporter with the Hartford Courant who obtained the police report. There was no mention of threatening words, no violent actions.

The author doesn’t present this fact in the case, or any relevant quotes that the suspect made in this case. Later on in the editorial, the author does quote a Lieutenant with the department that investigated the case who said:

“Certainly it was disturbing to the victim in terms of the interaction with this woman and the basis of her statements, However, it wasn’t threatening in nature. It wasn’t violent in nature.”

So with no threat, and no violence, would the circumstances that the officer had at the time of the investigation result in probable cause for a hate crime?

Based on a 2017 Research Report released by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research titled “Connecticut Hate Crimes Laws,” the summary of a crime in CT that rises to a hate crime is as follows:

“The primary criminal statutes are the “intimidation based on bigotry or bias” crimes.  

These statutes provide three degrees of penalties.  They address certain actions that intimidate or harass another person because of his or her actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.

The other criminal statutes that address hate crimes include:

1.deprivation of rights, desecration of property, and cross burning;

2.deprivation of a person’s civil rights by someone wearing a mask or hood;

3.ridicule on account of race, creed, or color;

4.deprivation of a person’s equal rights and privileges by force or threat; and

5.certain threatening crimes.

Based on available information on the Manchester incident, the only aspect that may provide for the case to rise to a hate crime would be item 3. Ridicule on account of race, creed, or color.

However, even the author of the Hartford Courant editorial recognizes the danger in this statute, including the following in their article:

Professor Douglas Spencer, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Connecticut law school, told The Courant’s Daniela Altimari that the statute is “unconstitutionally vague.”

“The First Amendment protects against laws that suppress speech based on its content and/or its viewpoint,” Mr. Spencer said. “The 14th Amendment protects against laws that are so vague police and prosecutors have unfettered discretion to criminalize speech they disagree with, and that are so overbroad they criminalize behavior that is clearly acceptable.”

The investigating officer in Manchester appears to have looked at the incident as what is was: a disturbance.

The context of the dialogue the suspect directed toward the victims, after they reacted to speech in a private conversation the suspect was having on the phone, was certainly based on the victim’s perceived cultural background. The dialogue, however, did not appear to be in line with a hate crime.

While it was certainly opinionated in a way some would consider discriminatory, with direct quotes from the suspect of “go back to your own country” and the suspect saying they were “taking over our country” and “Muslims need to leave America,” are law enforcement officers supposed to take an opinion like this and apply hate crime laws to what should be considered First Amendment protected speech?

Law enforcement cited the woman with Creating a Public Disturbance C.G.S. 53a-181a, which reads:

Sec. 53a-181a. Creating a public disturbance: Infraction. (a) A person is guilty of creating a public disturbance when, with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he (1) engages in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior; or (2) annoys or interferes with another person by offensive conduct; or (3) makes unreasonable noise.

Again, based on the Hartford Courant article written about the incident, this occurred after the woman was overheard in a phone conversation making the comment that she was “surrounded by immigrants who don’t know how to speak English,” prompting the victims in this case to approach her.

From what is known, it appears a clear line was drawn by the investigating officer in distinguishing hate speech from that which is protected by the First Amendment. The infraction was issued due to the alarming altercation that ensued.

In summary, it is alarming that local publications are presenting editorials to readers in Connecticut that seem to highlight perceived wrongs in the objective reasoning officers are making in application of the laws.

This article does not do justice to the decisions officers need to make every day in protection of the rights of all.

Painting law enforcement as wrong in their decision making, from the standpoint of of an author with no apparent law enforcement experience, serves only to further divide officers from the public they serve.

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