Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Should attacking police officers be called a hate crime?

In May of 2016, Louisiana made history by becoming the first state to enact a “Blue Lives Matter” law, a decision that added police officers to the protected classes of individuals under the state’s hate crime laws. Thirty-two similar bills have been introduced in a plethora of states, including California, and the legislation has passed in 13 states.

Blue Lives Matter is a pro-police movement that was created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests police brutality against African-Americans. Proponents of the law hope that the protected status will help reduce violence against the police by creating harsher penalties for attacks on law enforcement officers. There is, however, one indisputable problem with these so-called “Blue Lives Matter” laws: There is no such thing as a “blue life.”

The first hate crime laws were passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and made it illegal to intimidate or injure another person because of the other person’s “race, color, religion or national origin.” Since then, certain states have expanded the definition to include disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Race, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity: All of these are characteristics of a person that cannot be changed. They cannot be  hidden, nor do they have a reason to be. Police officers, on the other hand, often cease to be a target the moment they take off their badge and vest. There is a difference.

Now that is not to say that attacking a police officer isn’t wrong – it absolutely is. And there have definitely been instances where police officers were targeted because they were officers. However, hate crime laws have historically served two purposes: to support communities that might not have otherwise received the justice they deserved, and to protect individuals from being targeted for aspects of themselves that they cannot control. While being a law enforcement officer isn’t an easy occupation, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the police fit the same criteria as other communities protected under hate crime laws.

First, it’s important to emphasize that being a police officer is a temporary occupation. Those on the force can choose to leave at any time, find a new occupation and likely not have to worry about being a target anymore. A person of color, meanwhile, can’t just shed their skin and pick up a new one. Someone who identifies as gay or trans can’t just choose to love or be someone else. It’s not the same.

Additionally, hate crime laws are state, not federal, laws, meaning that the protection granted under these laws can vary depending on where you live. Only 45 states have any form of hate crime laws at all, and of the states that do, only 17 states and the District of Columbia cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. Sixteen states do not currently cover either, and the laws that do exist are poorly enforced. From 2010 to 2015, 270 hate crimes were reported, yet only 40 of those were ever prosecuted. Of those 40 cases, only 29 people were ever convicted.

In contrast, even before the formation of Blue Lives Matter, every single state had heightened protections for police officers. Support for increased legislation to protect law enforcement is steadily increasing, along with outcry about the “war on police,” despite the fact that police officers have actually been safer in the last few years than they’ve ever been before. In 2014, 51 police officers were killed nationwide – a jump from 2013, when 27 were killed – but according to Seth Stoughton, assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, “2013 was the safest year for police officers … in recorded history.” The overall trend indicates that law enforcement is becoming safer and safer: The 1970s were about twice as dangerous for police officers, according to Stoughton, and murders and assaults of police officers have fallen over the last few decades.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do what we can to make police officers and communities safer; we absolutely should. But do these laws actually do anything to keep law enforcement officers safe? Experts are unequivocally answering “no.”

According to a statement released by Jay Obernolte, a state assemblyman who tried to pass Blue Lives Matter legislation in California, the laws “send a message to criminals targeting law enforcement officers that their reprehensible behavior will not be tolerated.” Other proponents of the legislation have also mentioned the important role these laws play in deterring attacks on police. It’s unclear, however, just how these laws accomplish that.

Police officers are generally armed, travel together and receive extensive training on both self-defense and how to subdue others. As they are in charge of enforcing the law, they generally receive the benefit of the doubt in courtrooms. Attacks or threats against them are always taken seriously and can even result in the death penalty in certain states. People who attack police officers don’t do so because they think they can get away with it – they do it to send a message.

This begs the question, what message are the Blue Lives Matter laws sending? The whole Blue Lives Matter organization was formed in direct opposition to Black Lives Matter. Hate crimes have never received much attention or many resources until now, despite the spike in hate crimes that has been recorded since the aftermath of the election. The Black Lives Matter movement has persevered through one unjustified shooting after another without any change, while the Dallas shooting inspired a revolutionary set of new laws.

I’m not disputing that the police’s lives matter. I just hope that one day we will realize that everyone else’s do as well.

 

Contact Maya Homan at mayahoman.16 ‘at’ gmail.com.