Louisiana Bill Changes Definition of Hate Crime

‘Blue Lives Matter’ legislation is reactionary and statistically unfounded

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Illustration by Miguel Angel Hernandez
Illustration by Miguel Angel Hernandez

Hate crimes are a problem in America. They’re a problem anyone marginalized in our society for their religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or ability. But they are not a significant problem for police officers.

Last week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards extended the state’s hate crime definition to include the targeting of law enforcement officials and first responders. House Bill 953 is the first in American history to include occupation — something chosen by an individual and not an immutable characteristic — as a determining factor in a hate crime.

While this bill only affects the state in which it was passed, it has garnered opposition across the country and for good reason. Legislating against offenses based on “actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter” is statistically unfounded, and this law does nothing to address the core of hate crime incidents.

By including occupation in their statute, Louisiana legislators confuse the true meaning of a hate crime, which is defined as any crime committed because of an unchangeable characteristic of the victim. HB 953 belittles the importance of hate crime legislation for all other affected groups.

“Hate crime law is based upon a history of discrimination against certain groups of people,” said Ernest L. Johnson Sr., president of the Louisiana NAACP. “A bill like this just tries to water down that reality, because there is not a history of discrimination against police and firefighters.”

Nicknamed the “Blue Lives Matter law,” HB 953 was drafted and signed due to a perceived nationwide “war on cops” resulting from recent protests against high-profile cases of police brutality. The bill passed in less than two months without backlash in an overwhelmingly Republican house.

State Rep. Lance Harris, author of the bill, cited the need for extra protection due to “a deliberate campaign to terrorize our officers.”

There is no evidence that attacks against police offers are on the rise. Violent crimes by firearms against police have steadily decreased since the 1970s, from 156 officer deaths in 1973 to 50 in 2014, according to a study by former police officer and University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton.

2013 was the safest year on record to be a cop in America, with 27 deaths. While 20 officers have been killed in the line of duty this year, 2016 is also looking to be one of the least deadly years for police.

The fact is that police officers, the “blue lives” in question, already matter in America. They’re culturally valued and well-protected. HB 953 isn’t a form of counter-defense for officers, but rather a counter-attack.

Given the prioritization of police lives in America, this law seems to be a direct reaction to groups like Black Lives Matter, which aim to initiate a conversation on state violence and race. Black men are nine times more likely to be killed by police than other races, according to a Guardian study.

No one is saying it isn’t dangerous to be a police officer. No one is saying that ambush attacks against police officers because of their profession don’t happen. But in Louisiana, a state with the second-largest black population in the country, legislation shouldn’t focus on law enforcement when it comes to hate crimes.

The evidence of hate crimes committed against black people in the U.S. is overwhelming. The FBI, the U.S. Census, Gallup and many other sources report that black Americans experience the highest number of hate crimes.

As enforcers of the law, police are also protected by the law. When a police officer steps outside, they are taking a risk. When a black American walks outside, they too are taking a risk.

Marginalized communities have historically struggled to receive state recognition for crimes committed against them due to their skin color, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender. Now that HB 953 has passed, it may be even harder to hold police officers accountable.

“This ‘war on cops’ rhetoric is just another way to protect police from accountability,” Daunasia Yancey, a Black Lives Matter activist, told NPR.

Why is it that police officers can immediately get protection because of a perception of danger, whereas underrepresented groups in America struggle to get the same despite overwhelming statistics of hate crimes? In short, the answer is racism and the consistent devaluation of brown and black bodies in this country, this time prioritized below “blue” lives.

The tension caused by policing race is a national issue and deserves national attention. As the polarization between activists and law enforcement widens, a retaliation exposing racism and upholding biases toward people of color has ignited within Louisiana’s house assembly.