SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile's police take a beating during the country's frequent student protests, being bombarded by stones, firebombs and blistering insults.
Now President Sebastian Pinera has submitted a bill to Congress that would make it a crime to insult cops, stiffen penalties for those who physically harm police and make it a crime to attack police headquarters or vehicles.
"A police officer who's respected is much more efficient in carrying on with his mission of protecting our security and I feel that respect is weakening in our society," Pinera said Wednesday.
Penalties for insulting police could lead to up to 60 days in jail, Deputy Subsecretary of the Interior Rodrigo Ubilla said recently.
Pinera's government has been rocked by student protests that have caused his approval ratings to plunge.
The protests are mostly peaceful but are often infiltrated by violent anarchist groups and end with clashes between police and hooded vandals who throw rocks and firebombs. Pinera recently said that in the last two years, "more than 700 police officers have been injured by the cowardly acts of hooded vandals, including recent victims who were burned with acid or Molotov bombs."
Students sometimes insult police officers in riot gear who often lash back with water cannons, paintball bullets and tear gas.
The bill has been criticized by prosecutors who say it will overburden the judicial system with petty crimes that will be hard to prove.
"We don't know what the project concretely seeks to do, but there's no doubt that it will lead to investigations that we might not be able to carry out with our resources," said prosecutor Claudio Uribe.
While governing party lawmakers and police officers defend the proposal, human rights groups question the part that bans insults and its implications for free speech.
Jose Francisco Garcia of Libertad y Desarrollo, a conservative Chilean think tank, said the proposal to protect police from attacks is positive because assaults on officers have increased exponentially over in recent years.
But the part about insulting cops is more questionable, he said.
"The big discussion in Chile now is what constitutes a grave insult," he said. "Culturally, we use a lot bad words in Chile. So people are asking themselves: Will the penalty I get under law depend on how badly I insult a cop?"
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.