The House approved legislation Thursday that makes killing a state or local police officer an aggravating factor that juries and judges would consider in death penalty cases.
Under current law, killing a federal law enforcement officer is already an aggravating factor in death penalty deliberations. The bill's supporters say it's important to apply that standard to the murder of state and local law enforcement and other first responders, too, because it sends a message of accountability.
The vote was 271-143.
Some lawmakers and civil rights groups said the legislation ignores racial biases in the imposition of the death penalty. They also called the legislation duplicative since the killing of any police officer likely meets one of the other 16 aggravating factors that federal juries already consider in death penalty cases.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., acknowledged the scenarios the bill would apply to "are probably limited." Still, he said it would be important in some acts of terrorism where a state or local officer is killed, or if an officer serving on federal task force were killed. He said it would also cover volunteer first responders.
"This legislation sends a simple message. The stalking and killing of a law enforcement officer will not be tolerated," Goodlatte said.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he was troubled and saddened by recent attacks on law enforcement officers, but he believed the bill was "counterproductive to ensuring public safety and only serves to exacerbate concerns with the unfair and unjust death penalty."
Conyers said any bill dealing with capital punishment should also address concerns about racial disparities, such as a lack of qualified counsel and resources for those facing the death penalty.