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Louisiana is the first state to offer hate crime protections to police officers

Gov. John Bel Edwards on May 5 in Baton Rouge. (Melinda Deslatte/AP)

Louisana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) signed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill into law Thursday, making the state the first in the nation where public safety workers are considered a protected class under hate-crime law.

In many states, hate crime laws call for additional penalties for those convicted of crimes who targeted victims on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. Targeting police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service personnel now fall under Louisiana’s hate crime law.

“The men and women who put their lives on the line every day, often under very dangerous circumstances are true heroes and they deserve every protection that we can give them,” Edwards, the son of a sheriff, said in a statement. “They serve and protect our communities and our families. The overarching message is that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Louisiana.”

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. Killing a police officer, in many states, can be an aggravating factor or circumstance that makes the crime eligible for the death penalty.

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.

Washington Post database of police shootings

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 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 have 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 had nine officer fatalities in 2015 and none thus far in 2016, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial fund.

Police officers experience fewer deaths these days — but increased tension

State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson cited the 2015 death of Senior Trooper Steven Vincent “who simply responded to assist an individual in a ditch when he was met with gunfire.”

Police said the stranded motorist allegedly shot Vincent and then told him “you’re lucky — you’re going to die soon.”

“For those individuals who choose to target our heroes, the message formalized in this legislative act should be clear and the consequences severe,” Edmonson said in a statement Thursday. “On behalf of first responders throughout Louisiana, we thank the legislature and the governor for helping to make this law a reality.”

The Louisiana legislation faced little opposition from lawmakers and easily passed through the statehouse. The bill’s author, state Rep. Lance Harris (R), cited high-profile cases in arguing for his bill, including 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, according to the Advocate.

“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.

But there has been criticism of the measure outside of the state Capitol. The New Orleans chapter of activist group Black Youth Project 100 had 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.”

Black Lives Matter and America’s long history of resisting civil rights protesters

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.

According to The Washington Post’s database, police in Louisiana shot and killed 27 people in 2015. Two of them were unarmed. So far in 2016, seven people have been fatally shot by police.

The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League had also 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.”

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.

The change to Louisiana law would mean that 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.