TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody held a news conference in Bradenton on Monday in support of federal legislation that would strengthen the punishment for criminals who kill or try to kill police officers and other first responders.
The bill, if passed, would include the deaths of police officers whether or not they’re on duty, and would cover federal, state and local police, firefighters and first responders, so long as the crime occurs in a way that involves federal jurisdiction, according to a release from Moody’s office.
The “Thin Blue Line Act” proposed by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and Sen. Pat Toomey has been proposed every year since 2017.
The bill, according to congressional summary, “amends the federal criminal code to expand the list of statutory aggravating factors in death penalty determinations to also include killing or targeting a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or other first responder.”
Path to policy for Thin Blue Line Act
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting data, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty dropped 30 percent from 2016 to 2017, going from 66 officers feloniously killed to 46. The majority of officers killed were in the South region, with 24 killed in the line of duty. A slim majority of the officers were in Florida, with three killed in the Sunshine State in 2017.
Buchanan’s bill made it out of the U.S. House of Representatives, but there was no further progress with Toomey’s legislation stalled in the Senate. The two have continued to introduce versions of the legislation annually since 2017.
Data from the UCR shows the number of officers killed feloniously increased from 2017 to 2018, going up nearly 18 percent to 56 deaths. Again, the bulk of officers killed were in the southern United States. Unlike the year before, the data shows the most officer deaths in the south were measured at five in Georgia. Still, Florida’s count rose to four, the second highest number among each state for 2018.
In 2019, the overall number of officers killed in the line of duty decreased by eight, a 14 percent drop to 48 from 56 the year prior.
The south was again the hot spot for officer deaths, with 27 officer killings reported. The state with the most reported officer killings in 2019 was Texas, with nine. Florida had no officers killed in the line of duty in 2019, according to the UCR report.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deaths in the line of duty during the pandemic
In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency as the coronavirus swept across the globe. The national state of emergency officially took effect on March 13, 2020 as total cases of COVID-19 passed 2,100 in the U.S.
Data from the UCR’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted report ends in 2019. While data is available going back to 1972, the online format currently in use for LEOKA ranges from 2010 to 2019.
On March 24, 2020, non-profit organization Officer Down Memorial Page reported an officer death due to COVID-19 as a death in the line of duty. The organization is self-described as “dedicated to honoring America’s fallen law enforcement officers” and records every officer death in the line of duty, nationally, since 1776.
The first officer to be recorded as a line-of-duty death due to COVID in Florida officer was a sheriff’s deputy from Broward County Florida named Shannon Santo Bennett.
AG Moody cites ODMP in her own releases on Florida’s End of Watch reports, as well as data from the FBI. A new interactive database that tracks crime statistics federally shows that there have been 50 felonious officer deaths from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 this year. The FBI reported the increase amounted to a 51.5 percent rise in the number of officers killed feloniously in the first eight months of the year, compared to the same time period in 2020.
From March 2020 to date, 42 out of 59 deaths recorded by ODMP in Florida have been due to COVID-19. In that same time range, ODMP recorded 243 COVID-19 deaths nationally in 2020 and 180 in 2021.
LEOKA data reported 46 felonious officer deaths in 2020.
The majority of officers killed in 2021 are once again in the south.
The Thin Blue Line Act, today
Moody requested congressional leaders to support the proposed bill at a news conference in Bradenton, joined by Rep. Buchanan and local leaders.
“I am asking congressional leaders to take immediate action to protect those who swore an oath to serve by supporting the Thin Blue Line Act,” Moody said. “This legislation will provide local and state law enforcement officers the same protection and support currently provided to federal officers – acting as a deterrent to anyone who would look to harm an officer.”
Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan, Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, Bradenton Mayor Gene Brown, State Senator Jim Boyd and State Representative William Robinson, Jr. were all in attendance along with Moody and Buchanan.
The U.S. Representative said the bill was intended to show police and first responders that they’re supported.
“Police officers and first responders put their lives on the line every single day to help those in harm’s way. I appreciate Attorney General Moody’s strong endorsement and advocacy for my bill, the Thin Blue Line Act. Together, we are sending a strong message to police and first responders that we have their backs, and those who target our frontline heroes should know that there will be severe consequences,” Buchanan said.
According to a press release from the attorney general, current federal law dos not make the killing of a local or state law enforcement officer a qualifier or “aggravator” for the federal death penalty. The Thin Blue Line Act would remove what Moody says is a “discrepancy” between the consequences for killing a non-federal officer.
She also said that the law is needed to provide additional protections to officers as “violent acts against officers continues to grow nationwide” and while “there is a rise in an anti-police sentiment.”
As of March 1, Rep. Buchanan has again reintroduced the Thin Blue Line Act in Congress. Sen. Toomey followed suit with their own second reintroduction on May 12.
At this time, both the House and Senate versions of the Thin Blue Line Act have yet to move past the introductory phase in Congress.