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House committee takes on Blue Alert and hate crimes against police

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Protecting law enforcement officers and first responders has become a top political priority in Missouri, following several events in which members of both groups have been attacked or harassed.

In 2016, more than 60 officers were killed in firearm-related deaths in the U.S.

Gov. Eric Greitens has continuously called for legislation to enact a Blue Alert, a program which would send out suspect information across the state in relation to crimes against law enforcement officers.

Currently, 27 other states have the system, and several Missouri legislators are looking to make Missouri the 28th.

The House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety met Wednesday three pieces of legislation aimed centered around protecting the lives of police, firefighters and emergency responders.

Most of the members of that committee have prior experience in the public safety realm, with several members serving in law enforcement.

Both Reps. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, and Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, filed legislation seeking to establish the Blue Alert system.

Both bills aim to establish the Blue Alert system in the same fashion as the Amber Alert system and had little opposition during the committee hearing.

Hill filed his bill as HB 302, the same number that appeared on the badge of Ballwin police officer Michael Flamion, who was shot and paralyzed in a targeted shooting in July 2016. Dogan’s bill has been given the support of Gov. Eric Greitens.

The only concerns expressed by the committee was the implementation, and who would run the system.

Hill’s bill also creates a Blue Alert Oversight Committee within the Department of Public Safety that will determine the procedures for such a system.

“It makes sense to me have the same people who run the Amber Alert to also run this,” Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said. Currently, Amber Alert is run from the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Troop F Division. The Amber Alert is required by federal law, which may present issues if they attempt to “piggy-back” on the system. But they could look to the Silver Alert system that Missouri has as an option, which delivers to media outlets and people who sign up for the notifications.

U.S. Congress actually passed a national “Blue Alert” system in 2015, but that has stalled in the Justice Department, which says that Congress passed the bill without budgeting the $1 million needed to implement the program and they cannot find the funding.

The third bill, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis, looks to redefine the definition of a hate crime to include crimes against law enforcement and first responders.

The committee spent the most amount of time on Haefner’s HB 57, discussing the legal burden of proof required for the proposed hate crime changes.

Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, asked how one could demonstrate the burden of proof, saying that his concern was that cases could be tossed out without anyone being held accountable. He also said that opening up the law to cover law enforcement may also lead to the inclusion of other occupations as a special class.

The question at the center of the debate for this bill is whether police officers and first responders qualify as a persecuted group, needing the protection under state law.

Dogan also questioned the fiscal note, which is set at $0. He noted that if the bill goes into law, then he would expect an increase of incarcerations because of the convictions under this bill. He noted that every conviction requires housing in the prison system, a cost that was not reflected in the bill’s language.

Committee members also posed the question as to whether it was an effective bill, in terms of legal usage.

Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said that while the bill includes an increased penalty for assault with a deadly weapon, he didn’t think that a prosecutor would choose to file that charge when harsher penalties exists, or in the case of assault with a deadly weapon, which already carries a punishment of a Class A felony.

That would mean that the bill would, in effect, serve more in issues of damaged properties and harassment.

The questions of a legal nature went unanswered, as no representative was present from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys or any other legal entity.

“There’s already in the law a designation for special victims,” Chairman Don Phillips asked. “Is this just another tool for prosecutors to use?”

“It is, and unfortunately, a lot of prosecutors don’t use those enhanced penalties that are already on the books,” Haefner responded. “I’m hoping this will bring more attention to this matter.”