Lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are introducing bills to classify attacks on police officers as hate crimes, and a civil-rights group warns that such measures could aggravate day-to-day interactions between police and communities, and worsen tensions.

Drivers or pedestrians who believe they were stopped for no reason and got into a heated verbal dispute with an officer, for example, could be charged with a hate crime, depending on the circumstances of the stop and the words used.

"It's so broad, and gives law enforcement a great deal of power to charge and, indeed, overcharge people who they perceive as their critics," Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said of a bill that State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) plans to introduce Thursday.

Kyrillos' measure would extend hate-crime protections to police, firefighters, and emergency responders. The state currently offers the protections to people targeted for race, sex, religion, disability, and sexual orientation.

In Pennsylvania this week, Rep. Frank Burns (D., Cambria) introduced a similar bill, called "Blue Lives Matter," specifically for law enforcement officials. It also would enhance an existing hate crimes law.

Kyrillos said Tuesday that his bill would apply more to physical confrontations than verbal disputes with police.

"It sends a signal to police, to emergency responders, that we appreciate what they do," he said. "We completely and fully recognize the sacrifices that are made, the dangers that they face."

Louisiana in May became the first state to offer hate-crime protections to police officers. Massachusetts and Kentucky legislators have called for similar laws.

In Baton Rouge, La., Police Lt. Jonny Dunnam said Wednesday that his department has not invoked the new law yet because it goes into effect Aug. 1. But he said that were it on the books, it could be used in a pawn shop robbery Saturday, in which a suspect said he and several others stole handguns and were also looking for bullets to shoot police.

What qualifies as a hate crime toward law enforcement remains an open question, critics say.

The bias intimidation statute used to prosecute hate crimes in New Jersey, for example, encompasses more than 60 offenses, from murder to harassment. The offenses include both verbal and physical threats. If extended to police, this could encompass a heated argument during a traffic stop.

Judges in that event would have to decide whether a driver was verbally lashing out to intimidate a police officer or simply because he or she was upset, said John Eastlack, a Cherry Hill-based lawyer who often represents police officers.

"Trying to get in somebody's head about what they meant is a difficult thing," Eastlack said. But he said he believes the court system would be able to determine that, as long as officials "carefully examine the language that is used."

As New Jersey's bias intimidation law stands, an individual who commits a crime knowing it would threaten a protected group faces two charges: One for the crime, the second for bias intimidation. The second charge is generally one degree higher than the first, raising the possibility of higher fines and longer prison sentences.

Most states already offer enhanced protections outside bias laws for police officers and other groups.

In New Jersey, these measures cover firefighters, EMTs, corrections officers, teachers, and others. Injuring or putting them or officers "in fear of imminent serious bodily injury," as state law reads, automatically leads to charges of aggravated assault, a crime that can result in several years in prison.

That is a step above simple assault, a disorderly persons offense usually handled in the same court as traffic tickets. It can result in six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Nationally, the number of law enforcement officers killed by criminals has dropped in the last decade, from a peak of 72 in 2011 to 41 last year. This year, 30 officers have been killed, including the five gunned down last week in Dallas, according to FBI data.

Advocates for hate crime protections for police point to the Dallas shootings, by an apparently racially motivated former soldier who disrupted a peaceful Black Lives Matter march.

"The horrific events in Dallas were a stark reminder that members of law enforcement and other first responders can be targeted in the very communities they protect and serve simply because of the uniform they wear," Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, said in a statement this week.

The Dallas ambush came as protesters there and in Philadelphia and other cities were voicing frustration over the deaths in police shootings of Philando Castile, a motorist stopped in Falcon Heights, Minn., and Alton Sterling, a street vendor, in Baton Rouge.

Parts of both incidents were captured on video and continued a nationwide debate about how police treat black people.

mboren@phillynews.com
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