Louisiana's hate crime law already protects vulnerable minorities from attacks based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, but state lawmakers want to add another group to the mix: cops.
The state's House and Senate have already approved the measure — dubbed the the "Blue Lives Matter bill" — and it just needs the signature of Governor John Bel Edwards in order to become law. Edwards is expected to approve the bill, which also covers firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders.
The phrase "Blue Lives Matter" became a counter-slogan to the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of the officer-involved killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer of 2014. The incidents — and subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible — sparked outrage and protests across the US.
Some police advocates assert that the Black Lives Matter movement has fostered an anti-law enforcement climate, though the evidence used to support that claim is murky. The number of "ambush killings" of police officers has declined in recent years — the Washington Post found that about 9.5 such incidents have occurred each year across the country since 2000 — but by March of 2016 there had already been five.
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According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, a total of 124 officers died in the line of duty in 2015, a 4 percent increase from 2014. But only 42 of those were shot and killed, and fatal shootings of officers actually fell 14 percent between 2014 and 2015. The overall rate of officers being killed in the line of duty remains far lower than it has been in previous decades.
In March, Ken Buck, Republican congressman from Colorado, introduced legislation to expand federal hate crime laws to cover cops. The national "Blue Lives Matter" measure is currently stuck in committee, but it was endorsed at the time by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the largest union of law enforcement officers in the US.
"Talking heads on television and inflammatory rhetoric on social media are inciting acts of hatred and violence toward our nation's peace officers," FOP president Chuck Canterbury 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 December 2014, when the debate about policing in America was at boiling point, two NYPD officers sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn were shot at point-blank range. An investigation found that the gunman, who died by suicide after the incident, posted on Instagram that he wanted to put "wings on pigs" to avenge the death of Eric Garner.
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At the funeral for the two officers, thousands of NYPD cops in attendance turned their backs on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio because he was perceived as being too sympathetic to Black Lives Matter protesters. It was a defining moment for "Blue Lives Matter," and the fallout is currently being felt in Louisiana.
Lance Harris, the Republican state representative who authored the state's Blue Lives Matter bill, has, according to local news reports, often cited the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos when campaigning for the measure.
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Allison Goodman, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League's office in Metairie, Louisiana, told the Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge that including law enforcement under the state's hate crime law comes with its own set of complications. "It's really focused on immutable characteristics," Goodman said. "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 New Orleans chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), a civil rights group, wrote in a statement that "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."
"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 statement said, adding that nearly 1,200 civilians were killed by police nationwide in 2015, compared to 42 cops who were fatally shot in the line of duty.
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Savannah Shange, a representative from BYP 100 in New Orleans, added, "We have to stop this malicious trend before it starts — we cannot allow the gains of the civil rights movement to be squandered away by police officers scrambling to avoid criticism from their constituents."
The author Ta-Nehisi Coates, normally a vocal critic of current police practices, took a more measured approach to the "Blue Lives Matter" movement. Writing for The Atlantic, Coates noted that the problem with policing is systemic, and said it doesn't help to pin anger on individual cops.
"The killing of police officers is not only the destruction of life but an attack on democracy itself," Coates wrote. "Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will.
"To challenge the police is to challenge the American people," he said, "and the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that we are majoritarian pigs."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen