Civil Rights Groups Question Motive of Louisiana’s Enactment of Hate Crimes Law to Protect Police
By Richard Pérez Peña, New York Times
Hate crime statutes originated as a response to bigotry, a special penalty for singling people out for abuse based on factors like race, ethnicity, sex, religion, sexual orientation or, most recently, gender identity. On Thursday, Louisiana became the first state to add law enforcement officers to that list.
A bill signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday set off a debate over whether the measure was really needed to protect officers, or whether, as civil rights groups charged, it was an effort to dilute the basic meaning of hate crimes and to undermine the movement protesting the use of force by the police. A similar bill is pending in Congress.
The action comes at a time of fierce national debate over policing and race. High profile deaths of African-Americans in the hands of police — from Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York City — have prompted intense criticism of law enforcement. That criticism has come in street demonstrations and on social media, spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. Some law enforcement groups have charged that those protests have led to an increase in attacks on police officers, though there is little data to support that. Still, some supporters of law enforcement have adopted the slogan, “Blue Lives Matter.”
“I’ve read various accounts of people who I would say were employing a deliberate campaign to terrorize our officers,” said state Rep. Lance Harris, the Republican author of the Louisiana measure. “I just wanted to give an extra level of protection to the people who protect us.”
Ernest L. Johnson Sr., president of the Louisiana branch of the NAACP, countered, saying, “Hate crimes law is based upon a history of discrimination against certain groups of people, and a bill like this just tries to water down that reality, because there is not a history of discrimination against police and firefighters.”
Edwards, a Democrat whose family ties to law enforcement are broad and deep, said, “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' brother, Daniel, is the sheriff in Tangipahoa Parish; another brother, Frank, is the police chief of Independence, a town in the parish; and their father, grandfather and great-great-grandfather were also sheriffs in Tangipahoa.
William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, an alliance of officers’ unions, lauded the bill. “I think it’s fair to say that officers are under attack nationwide, and this is a reasonable response,” he said.
But violence against police officers is near an all-time low, according to data kept by the FBI and private groups. In recent years, homicides have been less than half what they were in the 1970s, when there were far fewer officers. In 2015, 41 officers on duty were “feloniously killed,” a category that excludes accidental deaths, the second-lowest figure in the last 60 years; the lowest was in 2014.
This year, 20 officers have been fatally shot while on duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. That is up from 16 at the same point last year, but it is a pace that would still make 2016 one of the least deadly years on record.
Harris, Johnson and others have cited two fatal episodes. In August, Darren H. Goforth, a sheriff’s deputy in Harris County, Texas, was shot to death as he was getting gas for his patrol car; and in December 2014, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, New York City police officers, were shot to death as they sat in a patrol car.
In both cases, law enforcement officials attributed the killings to hatred of the police. The leader of a police union in New York blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had voiced sympathy for protests against police killings, for the shooting there. The Harris County sheriff, Ron Hickman, said anti-law-enforcement speech, which he linked to Black Lives Matter, had promoted the killing of officers, a statement he later said he regretted, though he said he still believed Goforth had been targeted.
The assailant in New York had made it clear that he intended to kill officers in retaliation for the killings of black men, but in the Texas case, officials have not said what evidence they have about a motive. Both gunmen had histories of severe mental illness.
“Perception matters, and low-frequency, high-impact events drive perception,” whether that means viral video of a shooting by an officer, or violence against an officer, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a national group that researches and advises law enforcement. “Police officers believe that the odds have increased that they will be assaulted and ambushed and attacked, even though the numbers may not support that,” he said.
Louisiana, like many states, already had a law that increased penalties for crimes committed against emergency responders. The hate crimes statute, which is separate, provides that up to five more years can be added to the prison sentence of a person who is convicted of a felony if the court finds that the victim was chosen based on prejudice against certain groups.
Harris noted that among the criteria in the law were “membership or service in, or employment with, an organization.” That meant, he said, that adding law enforcement officers and firefighters simply makes explicit what was implied.
The Louisiana bill caused few ripples until it was close to becoming law; some of the groups now lined up in favor and against it were not aware of it until a few days ago. It passed Louisiana’s Republican-controlled House on a 92-0 vote. In the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed 33-3. Harris said he never expected it to draw much attention, but this week he said he had fielded calls on it from around the country.
Allison Padilla-Goodman, director of the Anti-Defamation League for the region that includes Louisiana, said hate crimes laws originated because offenses motivated by bias were often brushed off, but “there is zero confusion that a crime against a cop gets treated very seriously.”
She added, “Hate crimes are about an identity-based bias, an immutable characteristic that a person cannot change. Adding a professional category changes and confuses the meaning of that.”
Bueermann, a former police chief of Redlands, California, said that covering officers under hate crimes laws “can reinforce the notion that hatred of a group because of who they are has no place in our society, which is good,” but it should be coupled with holding officers to higher standards of conduct.
He cautioned that the law’s supporters had opened a new debate that could go in directions they might not like.
“At some point, someone might suggest that abortion physicians should also be protected,” he said, “that if you are hunted down because of your profession, whatever the profession, that should be a hate crime.”
To Learn More:
House Bill No. 953 (Louisiana Legislature)
Washington State Supreme Court Rules that Swearing at the Police is not a Crime (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)
Indiana First State to Allow Citizens to Shoot Law Enforcement Officers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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