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Are ‘Blue Lives Matter’ Laws Just Symbolic?

Critics say laws that treat attacks against police officers as a hate crime are unnecessary and hard to enforce.

police officers hate crime
(David Kidd)
Nearly every state imposes additional criminal penalties when a perpetrator assaults or kills a police officer. Should such attackers also be convicted of hate crimes?

It turns out a lot of states think they should. Last year, Louisiana became the first to pass a “blue lives matter” law, treating targeted attacks against law enforcement officers as a hate crime. More than a dozen states have since followed suit. “Any piece of legislation that tries to hold people accountable for any criminal activity that’s hate-driven is good,” says Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a research organization in Washington, D.C. “When you ask a certain class of people, in this case cops, to risk their lives for perfect strangers, you should step up and say, ‘We’re going to act when you are a victim of hate.’”

Not every assault on a police officer or sheriff’s deputy should be treated as a hate crime, Bueermann stresses. A cop might get punched in the nose because the perpetrator is trying to get away, or is simply too drunk to know better. That’s all in the line of duty. It’s only when someone specifically targets cops -- as happened with the fatal shootings in Baton Rouge and New York that prompted these laws -- that it should be considered a hate crime, Bueermann says.

That’s exactly what makes these laws problematic, argues Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor who co-authored a book about targeted violence called Considering Hate. Bronski opposes hate crime laws in general. Still, he believes the ones that seek to protect people based on sexual orientation or racial identity rather than profession make more sense, because such groups are commonly subjected to discrimination, which police officers are not. “There have been some instances where they’ve been singled out,” he says, “but these attacks are not pervasive against police forces across the country.”

Civil rights groups have made similar arguments, with the Anti-Defamation League maintaining that convictions will be difficult under blue lives matter regimes because prosecutors will have to prove intent. Others say the laws are a solution in search of a problem, since there are already enhanced penalties in place to punish anyone who physically attacks police.

Such arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Few laws have passed so rapidly and with so little opposition around the country. As with other hate crime laws, the blue lives matter provisions may end up being used sparingly, but their continuing passage is all but assured. It is quickly becoming the legislative equivalent of putting out “we support the police” yard signs. “Their job is dangerous enough already,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said of police as he signed his state’s law. “We have zero tolerance for anyone who would target officers simply for doing their jobs.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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