In many states, extra punishment is meted out to those who commit crimes against others because of their race or religion. Such hate-crime laws elevate the heinousness of crimes in which people are targeted because of their identity, their belonging to a group.
While hate-crime laws often refer to ethnicity or disability or gender, Louisiana is about to do something different. The state is poised to become the first in the nation where public-safety personnel will be a protected class under hate-crime law — a move that comes amid a simmering national debate about police shootings and whether that debate has given rise to an anti-law-enforcement climate.
The Louisiana legislation has been referred to as “Blue Lives Matter” — a phrase popularized in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded following the fatal 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.
Black Lives Matter activists have protested what they deem as excessive force by police, and they have called attention to specific instances in which police shot unarmed civilians.
But those who respond with “Blue Lives Matter” argue it’s officers who are under assault — that criticism of police fosters animosity toward law enforcement. In Louisiana, there were eight line-of-duty deaths among law-enforcement officers in 2015, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Louisiana House Bill 953 faced little opposition from lawmakers; the House passed it 91 to 0, and the state Senate approved it 33 to 3. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the son of a sheriff who has indicated that he plans to sign HB 953 into law.
Some states have floated proposals similar to the Louisiana legislation, and a bill proposed in Congress would amend federal hate-crime law to include officers as a protected class.
“Talking heads on television and inflammatory rhetoric on social media are inciting acts of hatred and violence toward our nation’s peace officers,” Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement. “Our members are increasingly under fire by individuals motivated by nothing more than a desire to kill or injure a cop.”
In 2015, 124 officers died in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. The number of officers fatally shot declined, falling to 42 from 49 a year earlier, while the overall number of deaths increased because of more traffic accidents and job-related illnesses.Fatal shootings of officers has decreased over the previous few decades — from an average of 127 in the 1970s to 57 yearly between 2000 and 2009.
But many officers and their relatives have said they feel greater tension with the increased attention to fatal shootings by police.
Louisiana state Rep. Lance Harris (R), who authored the hate-crime bill, has pointed to high-profile cases in arguing for his bill.
According to the Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, Harris cited the brazen and deadly ambush of two New York police officers in December of 2014 and a drive-by shooting that wounded a firefighter that same month in Florida.
“We have a pretty extensive hate-crime law right now, but I believe we should add firefighters and policemen,” Harris said, according to the Advocate.
No other state includes police officers as a protected class under hate-crime laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But at least 37 states — including Louisiana — have enhanced penalties for assaulting police officers.
In some states, hurting a police officer can be an “aggravating factor” to an assault or battery charge. And in many states, killing a police officer can be an aggravating factor or circumstance, making it a crime eligible for the death penalty.
Edwards, the Louisiana governor, is expected to sign the “Blue Lives Matter” bill this week.
According to the Advertiser, the Edwards family “has produced four generations of Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs,” including current Sheriff Daniel Edward, the governor’s brother.
“As the son and brother of a sheriff, I have the greatest respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect our communities, state and nation,” Edwards said in a statement. “Police officers and firefighters often perform life-saving acts of heroism, oftentimes under very dangerous circumstances, and are integral in maintaining order and civility in our society.
“The members of the law enforcement community deserve these protections, and I look forward to signing this bill into law.”
There has been criticism of the measure outside of the state Capitol. The New Orleans chapter of activist group Black Youth Project 100 has called on Edwards to veto HB 953, arguing that citizens, not police, are under assault.
“By treating the police as specialized citizens held above criticism and the laws they are charged to enforce, we lose our ability to exercise our First Amendment right,” the organization said in a statement. “Including ‘police’ as a protected class in hate crime legislation would serve to provide more protection to an institution that is statistically proven to be racist in action, policy, and impact.”
The organization highlighted high-profile deaths of civilians in Louisiana, including that of a handcuffed Victor White III. Officials in 2014 said the 22-year-old shot himself with a gun while in the back seat of an Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputy’s car.
The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League said it’s not wise to add occupations to hate-crime protected classes. “It’s really focused on immutable characteristics,” Allison Goodman told the Advocate. “Proving the bias intent for a hate crime for law enforcement or first responders is very different than proving it for someone who is Jewish or gay or black.”
The change to Louisiana law would mean those convicted of committing felony hate crimes against police officers could face a maximum fine of $5,000 or a five-year prison sentence. A hate-crime charge added to a misdemeanor carries a $500 fine or six months imprisonment.
This post, originally published on May 21, has been updated.