WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers in 14 states have introduced at least 32 bills proposing that members of law enforcement be included in hate crime protections ― like those received by people of color, religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ community ― since the beginning of the year, according to an analysis of state legislatures by The Huffington Post.
Last year, Louisiana became the first state to loop law enforcement into its state hate crime statute, with its so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill. Several states soon followed. The Mississippi state Senate advanced a similar bill on Jan. 26. It was killed by a House committee on Feb. 28. The Kentucky House of Representatives advanced its own version on Feb. 13. That bill is now headed to the governor’s desk to be signed or vetoed.
Most of the bills aren’t that successful. At least 20 of the bills introduced over the past year died by vote or at the end of the congressional session after being referred to a state legislative committee. Twenty-two are currently sitting in a committee for review, including in South Carolina, which doesn’t even have a hate crime statute on the books. A bill in Tennessee was withdrawn.
(This graphic is part of an ongoing feature keeping track of bills that states are introducing to extend hate crime protections to police officers. It will be updated monthly or as the need arises.)
The wave of legislation exposes an appetite to provide political sanctuary to an already protected class. Including police officers in hate crime statutes is legally redundant, or even counterproductive, creating deeper divisions between police and the communities they serve. All 50 states, according to the Anti-Defamation League, have statutes that automatically increase the penalties for violent attacks on police.
And, unlike hate crime laws, they don’t require prosecutors to prove motive.
“In the vast majority of states, you will get life or considerably less in prison for murder; but if you murder a police officer, you are almost certain to get death,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “So the truth is that including police in hate crime laws is merely a political statement ― and an unnecessary one at that.”
The Murders That Fueled Blue Lives Matter Laws
A lone gunman shot NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos at point-blank range as they sat in their squad car on Dec. 14, 2014. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had set out to avenge the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black father of six who died after being placed in an chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo that July.
Video of police pinning Garner to the ground went viral and exposed the strained relationships between police and the black community. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that August increased the focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence ― including scrutiny over the high rates at which black people are killed by police.
The national focus on police violence has put officers and their more avid supporters on the defense. Supporters created the Blue Lives Matter campaign as a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing protests against police violence. The campaign gained steam after the deaths of Liu and Ramos. By January 2015, Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, released a statement advocating for the inclusion of police in hate crime statutes.
“Congress saw a need to expand the law to protect a group of our fellow citizens who we suspected were being targeted as victims of violence,” Canterbury said. “In the last few years, ambush attacks aimed to kill or injure law enforcement officers have risen dramatically. Nineteen percent of the fatalities by firearm suffered by law enforcement in 2014 were ambush attacks.”
“Enough is enough!” he said. “It’s time for Congress to do something to protect the men and women who protect us.”
Former President Barack Obama signed the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act of 2015 into law that May. The legislation implemented national “Blue Alerts,” similar to Amber Alerts, that warned of attacks on police officers and would help track down the assailants who carried them out.
“They were serving their community with great honor and dedication and courage, and all of New York grieved and all of the nation grieved,” Obama said during the signing ceremony. “It’s important for us not only to honor their memory, it’s also important for us to make sure that we do everything we can to help ensure the safety of our police officers when they’re in the line of duty.”
Despite the effort, the so-called “War on Cops” continued to fester as aggrieved communities pushed back against police killings of unarmed black people. Both protesters and police were hurt in clashes. But things came to a head on Aug. 28, 2015, when Texas Deputy Darren Goforth was ambushed and shot in the back of the head as he put gas in his patrol vehicle. The Harris County Sheriff’s Department told HuffPost that the alleged shooter, Shannon J. Miles, had a many motives, but that Goforth was targeted in part because of his status as a police officer.
“[Goforth’s murder] was certainly part of the impetus for pursuing hate crimes legislation,” said Jim Pasco, senior adviser to the president of the Fraternal Order of the Police.
But while the FOP has renewed its 10-year-old calls for police to be included in hate crime statutes, detractors of Black Lives Matter have used the race of the alleged shooter ― who is black ― to try to undermine the movement.
Conservative media pundits promoted the Blue Lives Matter campaign as it gained traction following the heavily publicized attacks on police officers.
“Fox & Friends” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck wondered on air why Black Lives Matter wasn’t classified as a “hate group.” An on-screen banner ran by the network called Black Lives Matter a “Murder Movement.” And Bill O’Reilly asked a criminal justice expert if the movement was to blame for the murders of police officers. Republicans added Obama to the list of those culpable, arguing that he and BLM activists were stoking violence against officers with their calls for reform.
By the time five Dallas police officers were gunned down in July 2016, five bills to incorporate police into hate crime statutes had been proposed. One of those, in Louisiana, had been signed into law. In March 2016, Republicans introduced a federal bill in the House. It died in committee at the end of the 114th Congress.
“There have always been individuals in the United States with an inclination to perpetrate unprovoked attacks against police officers merely because they’re police officers, out of hatred,” Pasco said. “And that type of violence, incidentally, is growing at exponential rates.”
Despite these high-profile shootings and the push to make violent attacks on police officers a hate crime, on-duty officers are safer today than they were in the 1980s. The FBI declared 2015 one of the safest years on record for police. And, though the official numbers for 2016 won’t be available until mid-2017, the unofficial total of 64 officers who were feloniously killed would be significantly below a peak of 134 in 1973.
The small spike in ambushes and killings may be backlash to the deaths of unarmed civilians, “but this is hardly a long term trend,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University.
“Police officers are doing better as victims of crime than they have for many decades,” Levin said. “This is, hopefully, a short-term blip and not a trend. If we see that the number of ambushes of police officers continues to rise, then it may be worth taking another look at the possibility of including them in hate crime laws.”
These Laws Could Make It Harder To Hold Cops Accountable
A Louisiana police chief said in January that anyone who resists arrest or physically assaults a police officer could be charged with a hate crime under the state’s new law.
This interpretation is dangerous: Cops can use charges of resisting arrest to justify excessive force and cover up abusive behavior. Videos of police brutality commonly include officers shouting “stop resisting!” as they pummel a defenseless ― and not resisting ― victim. Charges of resisting arrest or assaulting an officer often follow.
“Any legislation for a ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bill seeks to instill intimidation and fear,” said Mike Lowe, a Black Lives Matter activist in San Antonio. “These protections make it easy to silence the voices of those seeking justice and accountability. I will not be silenced by it. All we want is justice and accountability, and law enforcement officers must be held accountable.”
The current nationwide push for Blue Lives Matter bills misinterprets these calls for police accountability and reform, said Shelby Chestnut, the director of community organizing and public advocacy with The New York City Anti-Violence Project.
“These movements to hold police accountable are not about targeting individuals, but they’re targeting a system that is highly trained, highly weaponized, and has a great deal of power over some of the most marginalized communities that exist in society,” she said.
These marginalized communities are often home to the protected classes that depend on the justice system. Over 7,100 people were victims of hate crimes in 2015, according to the most recent data from the FBI.
Most of them were attacked because of their race, religion, or some other immutable characteristic.
“There are many situations in which a police officer might be injured or killed in the line of duty. Sadly, that is just part of the job, but it has nothing to do with hate or bias,” said Levin, the professor of criminology. “The bottom line is that treating any act of violence against the police as hate-motivated only dilutes the meaning of hate crimes.”
Alissa Scheller designed the chart tracking the legislation. This article will be updated through the year as the status of legislation changes.
Did we miss anything? If you know of any state bills not included here that seek to make attacks on police officers a hate crime, submit them using this awesome Google form!