Calling for a debate on recording violence against police officers as a hate crime

By Dr Irene Zempi, Lecturer in Criminology, Department of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University. Irene is a board member of Tell MAMA, Nottinghamshire Hate Crime Steering Group, and Leicestershire Police Hate Crime Scrutiny Panel. She is the co-author of the books: Islamophobia: Lived Experiences of Online and Offline Victimisation (Policy Press, 2016 with Dr Imran Awan) and Islamophobia, Victimisation and the Veil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 with Dr Neil Chakraborti).

Nationally and internationally, the notion of ‘hate crime’ is characterised by the incitement of hatred based upon hostility towards the victim’s identity. In the UK, legislation is centred around the ‘five strands’ of race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and disability (College of Policing, 2014).


Police identity and more generally occupational status are not included in these five ‘protected characteristics’. The notable exception of occupational status being recorded as a hate crime includes sex workers. In 2006, Merseyside police became the first (and so far the only) force in the country to record crimes against sex workers as a hate crime.


At face value, the UK employs a ‘victim-oriented’ approach whereby a hate crime is recorded if the victim or any other person feel a criminal offence is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate. Although the law applies equally to majority and minority communities in each strand, it is commonly understood to have been designed with victimisation of minority groups in mind, thereby implicitly positioning some groups as more ‘deserving’ of legal protection than others (Garland and Chakraborti, 2012).


Police officers appear to lack many of the characteristics that have been attributed to more ‘traditional’ victims of hate crime. For example, they are neither marginalised nor disadvantaged. Rather, the police are seen as overly-powerful and adding to frameworks which reproduce relationships of power and privilege. However, the police are a somewhat defiled and stigmatised group. Given the ‘dirty work’ elements of their occupation, police officers are regarded as socially, morally and physically tainted (Huey and Broll, 2015).


Moreover, whilst traditional police recruitment patterns have overwhelmingly enlisted white, heterosexual, male officers, in recent years there has been a gradual rise in those from minority ethnic, female, and gay and lesbian groups. Minority police officers might be perceived as ‘other’ in a predominantly white, heterosexual, male organisation. This means that police officers might experience hate crime because of the intersectionality between their stigmatised occupational identity and personal identities.


Against this background, we conducted a pilot study in order to examine police officers’ experiences of hate crime (Mawby & Zempi, 2016). We employed Chakraborti and Garland’s (2015: 5) hate crime framework defined as ‘acts of violence, hostility and intimidation directed towards people because of their identity or perceived “difference”’. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 20 participants in a UK force, the study examined (a) the nature of hate crime directed towards police officers, (b) the impacts of this victimisation, and (c) officers’ coping mechanisms and responses. The sample was diverse in terms of age (from mid-20’s to mid-50’s), gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, rank, role, and length of service (from less than five years to more than twenty).


Participants reported experiencing hate crime on duty including name-calling, swearing, threats and physical violence because of their professional identity as police officers. Minority police officers felt more vulnerable to suffering anti-police hate crime. Participants pointed out that the visibility of their police uniform acted as a ‘trigger’ for experiencing abuse. This often escalated to experiencing hate crime based on their personal identity such as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender. Some participants felt targeted for both their police and personal identities; however, they pointed out that the latter ‘hurts more’. Clearly, we do not know the motivations that drove the perpetrators to attack the police workers that took part in our study. Rather, we rely on officers’ testimony in order to draw conclusions about perpetrators’ motivations.


Participants had mixed and ambivalent views concerning the formal reporting and support mechanisms provided by the police. They variously praised, dismissed or were suspicious of the reporting and support mechanisms. In terms of support from other criminal justice agencies (CPS, the Courts) to challenge and prosecute hate crime against police officers, participants felt that generally it was not taken seriously enough. Double standards seemed to apply for victims depending upon their status as police or public. Some participants questioned why the support provided to them was better as off-duty victims of hate crime than when they were on duty officers.


In light of this, we make the case for examining the hate crime experiences of police officers as an under-researched occupational group. In 2015, it was police officers themselves who suggested and encouraged us to conduct this study. Since then, Louisiana has become the first state in the US to pass a ‘Blue Lives Matter’ statute, which adds police officers to the list of groups protected under the state’s hate crime law. In the wake of recent shootings that targeted officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement argues that officers are under siege and need extra protection.


While there has been an increased interest in the experiences of ‘ideal’ victims of hate crime, relatively little is known about police officers who experience hate crime because of the intersectionality between their professional identity and personal identities. We hope to stimulate debate and further research on such an important, albeit ‘invisible’ problem. As such, we call for a debate about the targeted victimisation of police officers and highlight that further research is needed to examine this problem in more detail.

16 comments on “Calling for a debate on recording violence against police officers as a hate crime

  1. A fundamental weakness in the idea of police officers, or any other single profession, being exclusively, protected by a HC penalty enhancement statute of some sort, is that it is akin to having such statutes addressing bias on religious grounds protect only members of one particular religion. That is: it would violate basic non-discrimination and equality before the law principles. However, just as in the case of religion, it is of course possible to add “professional identity” or somesuch to the category-types included in hate crime penalty enhancement statutes. That would protect police officers, but equally so any other professional identity-holder (such as firefighters, health professionals, teachers, social workers, journalists, soldiers, public administrators, bank clerks, etc.). This could be done by adding such a category to lists of protected ones, such as the Belgian list including “so-called race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, birth, fortune, age, religion or belief, current and future state of health, a disability or physical characteristic.”, or it could be ruled to be covered by open ended formulations adding to such a list a clause of “or relevantly similart grounds”, such as in the Swedish legal solution. A third possibility would be to formulate HC laws more generic to protect against group-based bias crime of any sort, and then decide on a case law basis when a perpetrator’s motive would include such a bias significantly linked to a crime.

    1. Though of course many categories already violate principles of equality before the law, in the U.K. both disability and transgender are protected characteristics that refer specifically to these groups only. Approaches to inclusion of protected characteristics should carefully consider the purpose of Hate Crime laws and more generally the aims and goals of the criminal law. Before determining the groups that should be protected we need to ask: What is the mischief that hate crime laws aim to prevent and can the law achieve this aim through criminal proscription? I.e in this case is abuse of police a social problem that requires specific regulation as a matter of social control policy? Even if we answer yes to this question, we need ask then can Hate Crime laws help with achieving this aim? My answer to the first question would be yes, but no to the second question. That is because Hate Crime laws aim to challenge social prejudices which manifest in criminal offending, the groups or characteristics that should be protected must be those who require protection from pervasive social prejudices (typically those against groups of people who identify a social collective and who have experienced a history of marginalisation and stigmatisation) and which will benefit from the operationalisation of the hate crime/criminal law in order to help prevent that group from further social marginalisation/disadvantage. Police officers would not benefit from this as I don’t believe there is enough evidence to suggest that the police suffer from pervasive social prejudices which disadvantages them as a group, and would therefore benefit from specific relabelling as hate crime . As to approaches which allow judges to decide who should be specifically protected are open to the structural and social prejudices which give rise to the problem of targeted abuse in the first place. The fact that judges only sometimes employ the hate crime provisions under s 146 CJA 2003 which states they “must” do so when there is evidence of SO, transgender or disability hostility does not fill me with confidence, especially they were to have complete discretion to determine which characteristics should be covered.

      1. David Brax

        Here is an interesting difference between Swedish and U.K. Legislation. In Sweden, all the categories are “neutrally formulated”, and has been since the introduction in 1994. When it was revised to protect gays and lesbians, the formulation was “sexual” orientation. At the moment, an extension to cover transgender people is being considered, but the formulation will be in terms of gender identity and expression, explicitly so that cis-people will be covered as well (even though it is expected rarely to be applied). Swedish hate crime law does not cover disability at the moment, but if it were to do so, odds are that it would be phrased something along the lines of “function variation”.

        1. David Brax

          HOWEVER there was a victimization survey as part of the monitoring of hate crime in Sweden two years ago, when hate crime against politicians were considered. There was no suggestion that this should be included in the legislation, though. I wonder if it is similar with the inclusion of sex workers in Merseyside and Subcultures in Manchester?

          1. Yes it’s interesting why we have just ignored the equality principle in this respect. I think gender identity would be better here as it could also include gender based hostility more broadly. Sex workers aren’t included in Merseyside, their policy was to treat attacks in the same way as Hate Crime (not to treat attacks against sex workers as hate crimes). The inclusion of subcultures in Manchester was due to a campaign by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. They also lobby for inclusion in legislation but there has been no parliamentary debate (or from the Law commission) on this.

        2. Irene Zempi

          Yes as Mark pointed out, there appears to be a hierarchy of hate crime victims on the basis that race and religiously motivated hate crime incidents can be prosecuted more harshly than hate crimes motivated by disability, transgender status or sexual orientation.I would like to see equality for all the five strands as the current approach undermines victims’ confidence in the CJS.

      2. Irene Zempi

        I think that the ‘dirty work’ literature makes a convincing case for police work being a stigmatised occupation. This is also something that emerged in the interviews with our participants (in the study with Rob Mawby). Participants felt stigmatised and even demonised by media, government policies as well as international events including police brutality, police scandals etc.

    2. Irene Zempi

      Hi Christian,

      That’s an interesting possibility ie to add occupational identity as a protected characteristic and assess each case individually as a potential hate crime incident based on the strength of evidence. This could empower individuals who feel victimised because of ‘who they are’ and in this regard, their occupation can be a very important aspect of their identity.

  2. Joanna Perry

    Thanks for sharing your research Irene!

    My view is that assaults against police officers should be specifically recognised by the criminal law: for reasons of public protection (citizens need the police to be safe and confident to carry out their unique role and powers); and because they are more likely to be harmed simply because of the situational risks inherent to the job.

    I guess that it is for these reasons that in England and Wales such incidents are addressed as specific offences (e.g. Assault on a police constable in execution of his duty Police Act 1996, s.89) or as aggravating circumstances at the sentencing stage (e.g. R v Colin Dickson and, Section 5(2)(a)Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which sets the tariff starting point of the murder of a police officer at 30 years).

    But I think that the identity ‘police officer’ is qualitatively different than those of ‘Black man’, ‘disabled woman’, ‘Muslim teenager’ and similar, who were surely Parliament’s intended targets for hate crime law’s protection? The historical legacy and current reality of racist and bigoted violence provided the backdrop to the development of hate crime law in many national contexts and is essential to consider in this debate. In the case of the UK, it was the wholly inadequate state response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the resulting inquiry that most influenced our hate crime canon. Bringing the police into this framework arguably introduces a cognitive dissonance that will be hard to accommodate in the web of police and prosecutor guidance, community engagement and training that drive the implementation of our hate crime framework.

    Of course as your research found, the police, like anyone, can be targeted on multiple grounds. This intersectionality reflects the lived experience of many victims of crime, and our often rigid legal and policy approaches to hate crime can fail to effectively recognise and address this complexity.

    At the same time, your finding that:

    “Some participants felt targeted for both their police and personal identities; however, they pointed out that the latter ‘hurts more’”

    arguably further supports the need for a conceptual, and thus legal, distinction between being targeted on the grounds of being a police officer and being targeted based on hostility towards an unchanging and unchangeable personal characteristic. The two are both serious, both merit attention, yet the victim impact is different.

    This doesn’t preclude the very real incident as established by your research of an assault against a police officer which then develops into a racist/homophobic hate crime. In those instances it is for the criminal justice response to recognise both elements by 1. facilitating a supportive response to the victim as police officer and member of a minority group and 2. ensuring that the full nature of victim impact and offender culpability are transparently considered at the charge and sentencing stages.

    In a depressing but relevant twist, Trump has removed information about civil rights (which used to explain the Federal response to hate crimes) and violence against women from the White House website. And guess what they have been replaced with:…… “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community,” (

    Question: does bringing police officers into the hate crime canon exacerbate what is becoming an antagonistic zero-sum approach to understanding and addressing hate crime? I worry that it does. What we should really be aiming for are a range of policies and instruments that correctly – and yes, inclusively – recognise and address the diversity of targeted harms, their causes and their remedies. Expanding the hate crime concept in this way isn’t necessarily the answer.

    1. Irene

      Dear Joanna,

      Many thanks for your detailed comments, these are very useful indeed. I do appreciate that extending the existing hate crime framework might undermine the purpose of hate crime legislation/policy. But still, it is worth having this debate particularly since this study was initiated by police officers themselves who approached me and suggested that I do this study in order to voice their opinions, views and experiences of targeted victimisation on duty. They did see themselves as victims of hate crime, albeit invisible, and I wonder how important the perception of the individual victim is in this regard. Also, I am not sure if current mechanisms e.g. the fact that it is aggravating offence to attack police officers, is effective. It is worth examining this issue further.

  3. Rachel

    The police officers identity is already taken into account as an aggravating factor for sentencing those who offend against them. And there is already differentiation between assault pc, and assaults against members of the pubic. To make hate crime of such offending merely serves to offer members of the police higher levels of protection than other members of society. Considering that they already have the mandate for force to protect them from their own violence, there are concerning equality issues raised by the hate crime proposal.

    1. Irene

      Hi Rachel,

      Thank you for your comment. An interesting finding that emerged from the research was that double standards seemed to apply for participants depending upon their status as police officers or public. Some participants argued that the CPS, Courts took it seriously when they were off-duty victims of hate crime but when they were on duty e.g. as police officers who experienced hostility because of their personal identity, their case was dismissed as normal part of policing.

  4. Scott

    What though if it is a series of crimes perpetrated by a single offender targeting police and inciting fear. In 1988 two police on nightshift were ambushed and killed in Melbourne Australia. The killings were allegedly undertaken in retaliation, by the friends of an armed robber who was shot dead by police less than 24 hours earlier. The ambushers stole a car and placed it in the middle of the road with headlights on, engine running and all four doors wide open. They then lay in the shadows waiting for the police to arrive. When police did arrive, the two young Constable’s were leaning inside the car when the four friends of the armed robber came up behind and shot them dead. (Hate crime or retribution?)

    On the tenth anniversary of the shooting I was working on nightshift at a Melbourne Police Station. Unknown persons rang the police communications room near the start of the shift saying that on this the tenth anniversary another 2 police will be killed. A warning was put out to all police advising caution. About an hour later we got a call to a suspect vehicle, when we turned into the street there was a car parked in the middle of the road, engine running, doors wide open, headlights on. Did it create fear in us, yes it did. Did it create fear in other police who were aware of the incident, yes it did. Both hallmarks of hate crimes – fear in those who identify with the attribute being targeted.

    During the night we were called to another four such vehicles, every time not knowing if this was going to be the one that the offenders were waiting in ambush for us. Our colleagues at neighbouring police stations also had similar incidents during the same night. The aim of the offenders was to put fear into police, not me – they didn’t know me, but fear into anyone who identified as police.

    I agree, police are not powerless as many other targeted groups are, and I agree that in some jurisdictions that there is specific legislation for assault police. But sometimes we are the target of crimes because of hatred. Does that mean police should be included in the definition of hate crime, I actually don’t think so, as someone above argued, I don’t think was the original intent of the legislators, but police are definitely the target of crimes based on hate.


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