By William Douglas and Eleanor Mueller
There's a new movement percolating, a "Blue Lives Matter" push that seeks to raise penalties for violence against police and first responders but that also could serve as a controversial counter to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Louisiana, the legislature has voted to expand its hate crime laws to include law enforcement and first responders, in addition to victims targeted because of race, age, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The governor signed it into law Thursday.
Similar proposals are pending in both the U.S. House and Senate and starting to creep into the 2016 campaign, framing a debate over law enforcement and its relationship with minority communities.
Police organizations say the increased protections are needed because they are under siege on the streets.
Opponents argue that the "Blue Lives Matter" bills and other proposals are election-season messaging that ignores policing issues underscored by incidents in Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C., Staten Island, N.Y., Chicago and San Francisco.
"It's an issue that's growing in importance _ and you can't rule out that it will become an issue in the presidential campaign and several Senate races," said G. Terry Madonna, director for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College.
"There's a clear demarcation line here that emanates from Black Lives Matter. You can't rule out that this will become a clear dividing issue."
Polls show it's an issue that has political potential: 58 percent of Americans believe that there's a war on cops in America, according to a September 2015 Rasmussen poll, and 60 percent say critical comments by some politicians make it more dangerous for police officers to do their jobs.
Americans are concerned, despite the fact that the number of police deaths in the line of duty is declining.
There have been a few highly publicized attacks on police. In December 2014, for example, two New York City police officers were fatally shot execution-style as they sat in their patrol car. The gunman, who took his own life, posted on social media that he was going to shoot officers to avenge the police-involved deaths of two African-American men earlier in the year.
But FBI statistics released this month showed that 41 police officers in the United States and Puerto Rico were intentionally killed in the line of duty by suspects in 2015 _ 10 fewer than 2014 and the second-lowest total in 12 years.
"Any felonious death of a police officer is a tragedy," David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies policing, told McClatchy in an email. "But the idea that this is necessary or desirable because there is a 'war on police' is not borne out by the data of the facts."
Still, Pennsylvania's Sen. Pat Toomey, one of a half-dozen vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents, has a YouTube ad touting his so-called "Thin Blue Line" act, a bill that would expand death penalty consideration factors if the defendant is proved to have specifically targeted a victim for being a law enforcement officer, firefighter or public official.
"Police lives matter," Toomey says in the video ad. "I am sick and tired of this narrative across this country that we're hearing from so many political figures that somehow the police are systemically a bunch of racist rogues. The fact is, the vast majority of police are honest, hard-working men and women who don't have a racist bone in their body. And, yet, they are being targeted."
Toomey's bill has 23 Senate Republican co-sponsors, including five who are in tough re-election fights: John McCain of Arizona, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
A similar "Thin Blue Line" act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
"It is somewhat in response to the political dialog of the last couple of years," Jolly said of his bill. "I wanted to identify a way for Congress, at least those who agree, to say to law enforcement that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them."
On the presidential level, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump also has weighed in, saying in January that "police are the most mistreated people in this country."
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, when he was still in the presidential race, accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the killing of police officers.
"They have been chanting on the streets for the murder of police officers," Christie, who is head of Trump's presidential transition team, said in October on CBS's "Face the Nation. "That's what the movement is creating. And the president of the United States is justifying that."
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has embraced the concerns about policing in minority communities raised by Black Lives Matter and other civil rights and civil liberties groups.
Clinton has campaigned in several primary states with the "Mothers of the Movement" _ women whose children died by gun violence or in encounters with police.
The "Blue Lives Matter" efforts do have some Democratic support.
Louisiana's governor, John Bel Edwards, is a Democrat whose father and brother served as sheriffs. Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the Louisiana bill laudable but also a piece of "pandering to those who are anti-Black Lives Matter movement."
Law enforcement organizations also support the legislative efforts, arguing they will send a message and make suspects think twice before targeting officers and first-responders.
"It sends a message to the community ... that blue lives do matter, that assaults against police officers, law enforcement officers, and firefighters are assaults on the most basic, most fundamental level of government," said William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
"The ambush-style assaults, the murders of police officers across the country ... can lead legislators to look at this and say 'Yeah, this is a real problem.'"
Critics contend that so-called Blue Lives Matter and Thin Blue Line bills are redundant and that the message behind them is overtly political.
"When they adopt the Blue Lives Matter movement from Black Lives Matter _ that moniker or brand _ it's like a slap in the face," said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus. "Especially when you have not done anything to improve conditions so that black lives are not inordinately lost at the hand of law enforcement."
Besides, Hank Johnson and others say, there are already tough penalties and enhanced death penalty considerations for killing law enforcement officers on the books in many states, including California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Texas.
"Anyone who does harm to a law enforcement officer is treated harshly to begin with, treated more harshly than if they killed someone who was not wearing a uniform," he said. "What more could you do? If people are already getting the maximum in some cases, what more can you do than that?"
Still, NAPO's William Johnson said the "Blue Lives Matter" movement and the bill it's spawning are needed. He said that the FBI's figures don't accurately reflect what officers are encountering on the streets. He pointed to statistics by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the Officer Down Memorial Page, which independently tracks law enforcement deaths.
"I understand that people may say 'it's already against the law to assault a police officer ... or shoot a police officer," he said. "But those same arguments were used maybe 10-20 years ago when hate crime legislation was first proposed."
(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau