In trying times, law enforcement needs all the support it can get

As Pennsylvania state police Trooper Landon Weaver was buried Jan. 5, my thoughts went beyond the bravery of the 23-year-old shot and killed while responding to a domestic dispute, just six months after graduating from the academy that produces some of the best-trained police officers in our nation.

As the widow of this young trooper delivered a tearful eulogy inside the Blair County Convention Center, just one county to our east, the extent of destruction became evident. The couple’s dreams – buying a house, starting a family – would never come to fruition. I thought of permanent emotional scars his family, friends and fellow troopers would forever bear, and wondered how – and if – they would ever fully recover.

It became clear to me that a 32-year-old gunman, with a lengthy rap sheet and a reported penchant for Facebook posts such as, “The only good cop is a dead cop,” had destroyed more than one innocent life by gunning down Weaver in Huntingdon County, located just two counties over.

There was no uproar from the citizenry when the gunman, whose name I won’t mention because he doesn’t deserve even that, was later found in an unoccupied mobile home and shot dead after making threats and refusing police orders. Quite frankly, in a cold-blooded and nonsensical murder like Weaver’s, it’s easy to understand why most people in central Pennsylvania feel little remorse at the gunman’s passing.

Reading about the trooper’s funeral, I also took note of some comments from Weaver’s fellow members of law enforcement. One veteran policeman said fewer people are willing to serve, as his department has seen applications for openings drop from 60 to 15.

Who could blame them? Shooting deaths of police officers skyrocketed 56 percent in 2016, to 135 through Dec. 29. Weaver’s death a day later sadly made the number at least 136.

Since last July, when the upward spike in police deaths nationwide prompted me to introduce a bill to make assaulting a law enforcement officer a hate crime in Pennsylvania, I have advocated that employment in that capacity be given equal status to race, color, religion and national origin under the commonwealth’s hate crimes law.

I predicted then that this trend of violence would escalate and hit closer to home; regrettably, this has occurred. Worse yet, the trend does not appear to be abating as we start 2017. As I write this, police in the Orlando, Fla. area are engaged in a manhunt for an “armed and dangerous” suspect in the murder of a black female police officer outside a local Walmart. The man they are seeking has been arrested 20 times since 1994, according to a news report.

Some critics of my Blue Lives Matter bill, which I’ll proudly reintroduce soon for consideration in this two-year legislative session, have said it isn’t necessary and it won’t really deter attacks on law enforcement officers. They seem to hold the view that the extra penalty it would provide – elevating by one degree the usual punishment for the underlying crime – is a mere feel-good measure.

If that is true, then my response for argument’s sake is that all of the other classes covered by the hate crimes law only amount to feel-good measures, as well; they are equally ineffective at deterrence; and thus should be repealed because they don’t make a real difference.

Obviously, the chances of any repeal are nil, which proves that the majority must believe hate-crime status has legal merit. 

I believe it is time to confer this protection on those police, corrections, probation and parole officers who, like Trooper Weaver, voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis to ensure that we can live in a safe, orderly society.

It is the least we can do to let them know that their life and well-being are appreciated and do indeed matter.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, represents the 72nd Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.