Louisiana legislators this week passed a bill making assault of police officers a hate crime.
Supporters of the measure claim it’s needed because of a growing threat of targeted violence against law enforcement. Data shows that violence against law enforcement has declined to historically low levels, while the killing of civilians by police officers has dramatically risen.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is expected to sign the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill into law. The bill’s name is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, a collection of grassroots activists around the country who have demanded justice for victims of police violence.
HB 953, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), would amend the state’s hate crime law to include acts of violence against “law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel.”
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Under the state’s hate crime law, someone can be charged with a hate crime for an act of violence against a person who was targeted because of their “race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry.”
The “Blue Lives Matter” measure would create the first protected class based on a profession, not an immutable identity. A person convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime could face a prison sentence of up to six months and a $500 fine, and anyone convicted of a felony hate crime could face an additional five years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
Harris that the bill is necessary to protect law enforcement, reported USA Today.
State Sens. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans), Troy Carter (D-New Orleans), and Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) were the only lawmakers to vote against the bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana is not taking a position on the bill. Executive Director Marjorie Esman told Rewire that “at the end of the day,” the bill does not change the scope of current law as it applies to protected classes of people.
Allison Goodman, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s office in Metairie, Louisiana, told the Advocate that the proposal is “not something we could recommend,” and a departure from the traditional intent of hate crime laws.”
“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.”
Terrel Kent, a former East Baton Rouge parish attorney, told NBC News that the proposal is unnecessary and redundant.
“As a former prosecutor I know for a fact that battery of a police officer is already covered by other laws here in Louisiana,” Kent said. “To include essential peace officers, sheriffs, law enforcement officials or first responders is a slap in the face to protected classes.”
Harris said during an interview with CNN that the law was needed to protect law enforcement.
“In the news, you see a lot of people terrorizing and threatening police officers on social media just due to the fact that they are policemen. Now, this (new law) protects police and first responders under the hate-crime law,” Harris said.
Harris cited the death of Texas sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth as one of the reasons he sponsored HB 953. Goforth, a ten-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, was ambushed, shot and killed while in uniform in August 2015.
“It looked like it was strictly done because someone didn’t like police officers, like a hate crime,” Harris said.
Shannon Miles was indicted for capital murder in November 2015, and prosecutors alleged he murdered Goforth for the sole reason that he was a police officer. Miles had reportedly been arrested multiple times and had a long history of mental illness.
As the legal proceedings unfolded, allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officials emerged. It was alleged that officials connected with the investigation had an improper sexual relationship with a witness to the shooting. This led to local activists to call for an apology from law enforcement for connecting the shooting to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Miles was found to be incompetent to stand trial, and will be reevaluated for trial after spending 120 days in a mental health facility.
Harris did not respond to Rewire’s request to comment on this story.
There were 42 police officers killed by firearms nationwide in 2015. The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has steadily decreased over the past three decades. Police deaths by gunfire decreased by 14 percent from 2014-2015 and police officer deaths were at a 50-year low in 2013.
“The 42 firearms-related deaths of police officers in 2015 are 26 percent lower than the average of 57 per year for the decade spanning 2000-2009,” according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
Eighty-three officers have been killed in the line of duty in Louisiana since 2000, according the NLEOMF. There were eight policers killed in the state in 2015. No Louisiana police officers have been killed in 2016, according to NLEOMF data.
Statistics Raise Questions About “Blue Lives Matter” Law
The number of civilians killed by law enforcement in Louisiana far outnumber the number of police who have been killed in the line of duty.
At least 1,146 people were killed in the United States by police officers in 2015, according to the Guardian database of police shootings. Police officers have shot and killed 28 people in Louisiana since the start of 2015. Of those 28 people, 14 were Black men, two of whom were unarmed.
Police in Louisiana have shot and killed eight people so far in 2016.
Fatal Encounters, a project to create a comprehensive national database of people who are killed through interactions with police, has collected data on fatal police shootings in Louisiana.
There have been 438 civilians killed by police since 2000, according to data from Fatal Encounters. Of those killed by police, 143 were Black and 96 were white. There were 188 incidents in which a civilian whose race was unspecified was killed by police.
Harris represents House District 25, a rural district in central Louisiana that includes part of the town of Alexandria. There have been five people killed by law enforcement in Alexandria since 2000, with three of those five people killed since 2014.
Anthony Molette was also killed in February 2003 by police officers in Alexandria after allegedly shooting and killing police officers Jeremy Carruth and David Ezernack.
Aaron Rutledge, a combat medic and a recruiter for the Louisiana National Guard, was shot and killed in April 2015 by a Rapides Parish sheriff’s deputy after local law enforcement responded to a call that Rutledge had threatened someone with a firearm and then threatened himself, reported the Town Talk.
Lawmakers in the state legislature introduced a resolution in April to offer “condolences of the Senate of the Legislature of Louisiana to the family of Louisiana Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Aaron Rutledge upon his death in the service of his country.”
Harris was not among the lawmakers who sponsored the resolution.
“Hiding Behind Uniforms and Badges”
Louisiana has the worst racial disparities in the country, based on indicators related to household income, public school segregation, and health insurance, among others, according to a study by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.
These same racial disparities are manifested in the state’s the criminal justice system, according to local activists who have spoken out against HB 953.
Angela Kinlaw, an activists in New Orleans, said in a statement that the state of Louisiana has ensured that the law is used to “manipulate and control citizens” while being exploited by a systemically unjust system.
“In the face of ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, this “Blue Lives Matter” bill is an intentional slap in the face, designed to control, create fear, and through police discretion penalize citizens for situations that often police create or escalate,” Kinlaw said. “We have seen it time and time again.”
Significant racial disparities have been documented in death penalty sentences in Louisiana. Defendants accused of killing white victims are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death and nearly four times as likely to be executed than defendants accused of killing Black victims, according to a study published in the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law.
Nia Weeks, policy director of the New Orleans-based Women With a Vision, said in a statement that hate crime laws should protect “vulnerable members of our community” when they are the victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
“Structurally there is a power differentiation between police officers and those they encounter. When Black women are immersed in the criminal justice system, they enter a place that imparts racist, sexist, and homophobic ideology on them from the beginning,” Weeks said.
The New Orleans Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) released a statement opposing the bill. Savannah Shange of BYP100 New Orleans said that the bill allows law enforcement to hide “behind uniforms and badges” despite having a “long and egregious history” of committing acts of violence against communities of color.
“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,” Shange said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated data about police officer deaths over the past 50 years.