'Hate crimes will not be tolerated in Louisiana': New 'Blue Lives Matter' law first in nation _lowres

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks with reporters about his budget cut proposal for the upcoming fiscal year after speaking to the House Appropriations Committee, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. Edwards is proposing to close a $750 million budget shortfall with cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor and public schools. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

Louisiana will become the first state in the country to treat attacks on police and firefighters as hate crimes and extend the same protections that are offered to people targeted for their race, gender or religion.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday signed into law the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” legislation that has gripped national attention in recent weeks.

The new law, which takes effect Aug. 1, will expand the state hate crime law and ultimately increase penalties for certain crimes that target law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders in Louisiana, including assault and arson.

Edwards, a Democrat, said he saw value in extending such protections. Edwards’ brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all served as sheriffs of his home parish, Tangipahoa. Another brother is the police chief of Independence.

“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 said in a statement. “They serve and protect our communities and our families. The overarching message is that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Louisiana.”

Though unique nationally and viewed as controversial by some critics, the measure passed the Legislature with little resistance. Critics have questioned both its need and intent.

Supporters of the push have pointed to high-profile attacks on police and firefighters as evidence for its need.

Louisiana had one of the highest officer death rates last year — a year in which the state saw more police fatalities than in any year in the past decade.

“The signing of this bill gives us all an opportunity to pause and remember the extraordinary acts by seemingly ordinary people who serve our state as first responders. Whereas citizens flee danger, police, fire and EMS personnel run to it,” State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said in a statement.

But the legislation, which mimics a push to expand the federal hate crimes statute in Congress, is seen as a backlash to the “Black Lives Matter” advocacy effort that has drawn attention to violence against African-Americans, particularly at the hands of law enforcement.

No other state includes law enforcement or firefighters among protected classes in hate crime laws, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Louisiana’s hate crime statute, people convicted of felonies against protected classes face an additional five years in prison and up to $5,000 fine. In misdemeanor cases, the hate crime statute increases penalties by $500 or up to six months in prison.

Those increased penalties now will be extended for any victim who is targeted based upon his or her actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.

Critics of such efforts have argued that hate crime laws traditionally have been reserved for traits like race, gender, religion, nationality or sexual orientation and aren’t meant to be extended to occupations.

Under current Louisiana law, hate crime charges can be brought in some criminal cases in which the victim is targeted based on race, age, gender, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, creed, sexual orientation or organizational affiliation.

The New Orleans Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 said in a statement that its members were disappointed in Edwards’ decision to sign the legislation into law.

“There is absolutely no reason to include the police under hate crime protections; no one is targeting them. But black women, girls, femmes and transgender people are being targeted every day, including by the police,” chapter official Anneke Dunbar-Gronke said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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