Should America's Cops Be Protected by Hate Crime Laws?

Supporters of new pro-cop laws say police are an "oppressed minority," but critics fear the already toxic relationship between law enforcement and people of color will just get worse.
May 22, 2016, 1:28pm

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After the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement successfully pushed police brutality to the forefront of the national conversation. Naturally, there was some pushback from conservatives and cops who said they were the real victims—that police are put in more danger every year by their jobs, and that the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter isn't helping keep them safe. The sentiment, most experts pointed out, ran counter to the facts: People of Color really are disproportionately killed by police; and violence against police seems to be at a multi-decade low.

But that hasn't stopped "Blue Lives Matter," which apparently began as a hashtag in response to the popularity of #BlackLivesMatter, from swelling into a veritable cause of its own. There are dozens of Blue Lives Matter support groups across the internet, and a seemingly official organization based in NYC. Perhaps most important, over the last few months, at least two Blue Lives Matter bills have been introduced around the country which, if passed into law, would treat cops as a protected class vulnerable to hate crimes. The measures would make anyone who assaults, kills, or otherwise harms a cop subject to the same strict sentencing rules as those tried for assaulting or killing someone because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Some police unions have been pushing for a similar law for over a decade, but these two bills appear to be the first to heed to that call.

One of the proposals is a federal one, the Blue Lives Matter Act, introduced by US Representative Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado. It would add law enforcement officers to the national hate crime statute and has been introduced to the House but has not yet been scheduled for a vote. Another bill in the Louisiana state legislature is largely the same, but would also cover firefighters and other first responders. That bill will likely become law after clearing the State Senate on Tuesday, assuming Governor John Bel Edwards signs it.

Supporters of both bills say they're absolutely necessary to keep cops safe.

"If you're terrorizing a police officer because they're wearing a uniform, you should be charged with a hate crime," Louisiana Rep. Lance Harris, sponsor of the state's bill, told VICE over the phone. "In lieu of all the attacks of officers around the country, I feel like it would be necessary to add that to our hate crimes statute."

Harris said he did not have specific data on hand to show an increase in attacks, but was prompted to introduce the bill after seeing news of a police officer in Houston Texas getting shot multiple times in what may have been a targeted attack this April. "Whether [the increase] is real or not, it does seem to me to be a real threat," Harris said. "There's also a lot of rhetoric online, and you can see the increase from reading the news." Congressman Buck's office did not return calls for comment, but police-friendly groups say they support both the national and Louisiana legislation. "There's a war on cops, but it's more than just a physical war," Randy Sutton, the head of the New York-based nonprofit Blue Lives Matter NYC, told me. "Police officers do not believe that many of their political leaders are supportive of them… I completely believe law enforcement is an oppressed minority." Jim Pasco, head of the National Fraternal Order of Police, a nonprofit that represents over 300,000 law enforcement officers across the country, agrees that police deserve to be a protected class. "Unprovoked attacks on police are up, disrespect for authority figures is up in general," he told me in an email. "It's hard to say what the cause is, but we are sure that poverty, a failed educational system, lack of economic opportunity, and squalid neighborhoods contribute [to police attacks]. Cops didn't create these problems, politicians did. Cops are left to deal with the result." But data released by the FBI earlier this week shows that even without hate crime legislation protecting cops, police officers seem to be safer than they have been in decades. There were 41 officers intentionally killed in the line of duty last year, compared with 51 killed in 2014, and an average of 64 killed each year since the 1980s. Research shows officer deaths have been falling since at least the 1970s. So what explains the sentiment that police are under attack more? "Mentions of officers killed in the line of duty really jumped after Ferguson," Aaron Major, a professor of political sociology at the University of Albany who has studied the media's portrayal of violence against police, told me. "There was a huge increase in coverage across news outlets, not just Fox News or conservative outlets, but everywhere. But, at the same time, this has been one of the least violent periods for police officers in recent years." The media has also jumped on the so-called "Ferguson Effect"—an idea that because police are now scared of being perceived as biased or overly aggressive, they've pulled back on policing, leading to a rise in crime. But there's at best conflicting evidence that this is happening. Blue Lives Matter supporters Pasco and Sutton both dispute the data.Regardless of the precise number of police deaths, though, the bills aimed at protecting officers seem to have some legs and could have real consequences for police-community relations and civil liberties. Allison Padilla-Goodman, director of the South-Central region of the Anti Defamation League (which includes Louisiana), told me that hate crimes should be reserved for immutable characteristics like race and gender, not chosen professions. "It moves away from the real intent of the hate crime statute," she said. The Anti-Defamation League and other activists in Louisiana have been mobilizing around the bill, asking people to call their representatives and encourage them to vote no. But with the bill already on the governor's desk, it may be too late. Louisiana is so far the only state with its own Blue Lives Matter bill, but if Rep. Buck's bill makes headway of its own, police could become a protected class under hate crime legislation nationally. While no presidential candidate has commented on the bill specifically, Donald Trump has said "police are the most mistreated peoplein this country," so it seems that regardless of the success of Buck's bill, the rhetoric surrounding the Blue Lives Matter movement is here to stay. If similar bills continue to gain traction, some advocates fear the already-strained relationship between cops and people of color could get even more toxic. "We as a community have a lot of reason to not trust the police already," Anne Gronke, an organizer with the Black Youth Project 100 in New Orleans, a group that tests police brutality, told me. "We already know that cops will charge people with things like bleeding on a police officer. We don't need another reason for them to further criminalize us." Follow Peter Moskowitz on Twitter.