Should Violence Against Cops Be a Hate Crime?
Blue Lives Matter bills that would increase the penalties for attacking police are popping up in states and Congress.
After the fatal shooting of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., this month, lawmakers across the country want to increase the penalties for attacking law enforcement and other first responders.
In May, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a law that made Louisiana the first and only state to label certain acts of violence against police a hate crime. So-called Blue Lives Matter bills -- a riff on the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and racism -- have been proposed in at least nine other states and Congress in the past year.
Supporters of such legislation argue that targeted attacks on cops are on the rise and that politicians need to take a stand against such violence. Critics counter that the bills dilute the meaning of a hate crime and detract from the more widespread issues of excessive use of force and racial discrimination by police.
In general, hate crimes receive harsher punishment than other crimes. In Louisiana, getting convicted of a hate crime could mean up to five more years in prison for felonies or an extra six months for misdemeanors. The hate crimes mentioned in the new law include rape, arson, assault with a firearm and manslaughter.
While the recent attacks on police have raised the visibility of Blue Lives Matter proposals, it was the deadly ambush of two cops in New York City in 2014 that sparked the push for changing hate crime laws.
So far, data collected by the FBI don't show an uptick in deadly assaults on police officers. Last year, 41 officers were intentionally killed in the line of duty by suspects, which was not only a decline from 2014 but also the second lowest total in 12 years.
But police leaders still worry about targeted officer killings, motivated by anger over discriminatory policing. And it's possible that the FBI statistics don't capture the full story. For example, a law enforcement nonprofit released a report this week that found deadly shootings of police appear to be on the rise when comparing the first six months of 2016 to the first six months of 2015.
The Fraternal Order of Police, a national union, supports the Louisiana law and wants Congress to go further by expanding the federal definition of hate crimes to add police as a protected group.
“Assassinations of police officers are strictly based on the bias of the gunmen, so we feel that it fits within the definition of a hate crime," said Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. But, he said, "it’s not a solution. It just points out that it’s a problem.”
Maryland Del. Steven Arentz, who introduced a bill that died in committee, has similar sentiments. He said his hate crime bill, which he plans to file again next year, would serve as a public education tool.
“I thought it would at least bring more awareness that police are being targeted just because they are police."
Civil rights groups, while condemning violence against police, think that making it a hate crime is inappropriate.
The Anti-Defamation League, for example, argued that “the list of personal characteristics included in hate crimes laws should remain limited to immutable characteristics, those qualities that can or should not be changed.” In other words, people choose to become police and can choose to leave their jobs. That choice isn’t available to groups targeted because of their race, gender or ethnicity. The league still supports the idea of increasing penalties for crimes against police, but it doesn't believe an amendment to hate crime laws is the way to do it.
The Black Youth Project, a student-led research group at the University of Chicago, also opposes Louisiana’s Blue Lives Matter law and others like it. Jordie Davies, a writer for the Black Youth Project, called the bills “political farce.” Instead, she said, states should focus on getting police to avoid excessive use of force when nonviolent alternatives are possible.
“These laws are unnecessary,” she wrote, “and only serve to trump up charges against protesters and those who (rightly or wrongly) oppose police officers.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in at least nine states have introduced bills similar to Louisiana's Blue Lives Matter law: California, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and South Carolina. Most of the proposals also call for added protections for other kinds of emergency personnel, such as firefighters and paramedics. With the exception of one bill in California, they are all sponsored by Republicans.