Two weeks ago, the New York State Senate passed a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill—a law that makes offenses against police and first responders a hate crime. Forms of such legislation have been introduced in at least 14 states since the beginning of 2016. There is little chance that New York’s bill will pass through the state assembly, where Democrats hold a majority, but the sentiment behind the proposed legislation—that police officers need another layer of protection beyond that which they are already afforded—has raised concern among civil-rights advocates and in heavily policed communities.
So far, two Blue Lives Matter bills have been signed into law: The first was passed last May in Louisiana, and the second just two months ago in Kentucky. Hate crimes laws often increase the sentence imposed on the offender, but, more than that, they are symbolic. “Most hate crime statutes protect against groups that have historically been targets of bigotry; hate crime statutes across all states most commonly prohibit crimes based on race, religion, and ethnicity,” writes Jessica Henry, a justice-studies professor at Montclair State University. Is that the case for police officers?
“There have always been individuals in the United States with an inclination to perpetrate unprovoked attacks against police officers merely because they’re police officers, out of hatred,” Jim Pasco, senior adviser at the Fraternal Order of Police, told The Huffington Post in March. “And that type of violence, incidentally, is growing at exponential rates.” “Exponential rates” is inaccurate. There were 63 gun deaths in the 145 total law-enforcement fatalities in 2016, which was a 56 percent increase from the year before—but not unprecedented; 68 officers died in the line of duty by gun in 2011. Overall, police fatalities for 2016 were still lower than the average for the previous 10 years, reported NPR. “There’s clearly not a problem,” said civil-rights attorney Jonathan Moore, “and so these bills are a colossal waste of time and energy.” “There is no need for this and there is no evidence that police have been injured more because of anti-police sentiment,” said Jeffrey Robinson, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “This is not going to make one police officer in America any safer.”
But it’s also not true that police officers have been targets of bigotry in the way that those whom hate-crime laws seek to protect have. The 1968 Civil Rights act made it a crime to “willfully…injure, intimidate or interfere with—any person because of his race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Robinson says hate-crime legislation should and has historically been used for victims and communities who have not been properly protected by the law. For black Americans, he said, hate-crime laws have made sense, though conviction rates for hate crimes remain incredibly low. Between 2010 and 2015 a total of 270 hate crimes were referred to federal prosecutors across the country and 230 of them weren’t ever even prosecuted. During that five-year period, only 29 people were convicted of a hate crime. Meanwhile, every state in America has an increased penalty for those who attack law enforcement.