Louisiana would be among the first states to make it a hate crime to target police officers and firefighters, if legislation that is being pushed at the State Capitol this session is successful.
Supporters argue that new protections are needed for law enforcement because of recent cases of targeted crimes against first responders. Meanwhile, critics say the effort is unnecessary and distracts from the point of hate crime laws.
House Bill 953, which would expand the state hate crime law and ultimately increase penalties for certain crimes that target law enforcement and firefighters in Louisiana, passed through a state House committee on Wednesday after little discussion.
“We have a pretty extensive hate crime law right now, but I believe we should add firefighters and policemen,” said Rep. Lance Harris, an Alexandria Republican pushing the bill.
HB953 still has to be taken up by the full House and would also have to be vetted by the Senate before it could become law.
According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, no state has gone so far as to include law enforcement or firefighters among protected classes in hate crime laws.
The push here appears to mimic a national movement afoot, though. At least one bill has been proposed at the Congressional level to add law enforcement to the federal hate crimes statute. It is dubbed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, in contrast to the “Black Lives Matter” advocacy effort that has drawn attention to violence against African-Americans, particularly at the hands of law enforcement.
Harris cited several high-profile attacks on first responders in making his case for the state version of the bill Wednesday. Those same cases frequently make lists of cases that illustrate tensions in race relations and relations between the public and law enforcement.
Perhaps the most well-known recent case: New York City officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were fatally shot in 2014 by a gunman who had posted on Instagram that he wanted to put “wings on pigs” after the death of Eric Garner, a man who died in a highly-publicized police chokehold incident in New York.
Harris mentioned the case of a suburban Houston sheriff’s deputy was shot 15 times at a gas station last fall. Police have alleged that the ambush took place because the victim was a law enforcement officer, though the gunman’s lawyers have disputed that motive.
In Florida in 2014, firefighters were targeted in a high-profile drive-by shooting, and Harris said similar cases have popped up across the country.
“For no reason, shots were fired at these firefighters because they were public servants,” he said.
No one spoke against Harris’ bill during Wednesday’s hearing.
But critics of such efforts here and elsewhere say 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.
“It’s really focused on immutable characteristics,” said Allison Goodman, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s office in Metairie. “Proving the bias intent for a hate crime for law enforcement or first responders is very different than proving it for someone who is Jewish or gay or black.”
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.
HB953 would add those same increased penalties for any victim who is targeted based upon his or her actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.
Goodman said that the ADL — one of the nation’s leading advocates for hate crime legislation — supports law enforcement but disagrees with the push to expand hate crimes to cover first responders. She compared it to Maine’s hate crime law that includes people who are homeless.
“We don’t think that’s a category that should be included because people move in and out of being homeless,” she said. “The same would be said for law enforcement.”
“It’s not something we could recommend,” she added.
Louisiana law already provides for increase penalties for crimes against active peace officers. Goodman said such enhanced penalty efforts offer a better route for states and don’t take away from the intent of hate crime laws.
On the national scene, the effort to add the new hate crime statutes for law enforcement is backed by the nation’s largest police union. Chuck Canterbury, national president for the Fraternal Order of Police, has argued that the extension is needed because of what he sees as a growing anti-police sentiment in the wake of controversial deaths by law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere.
“Our members are being increasingly under fire by individuals motivated by nothing more than a desire to kill or injure a cop,” Canterbury said in a statement last month. “There is a very real and very deliberate campaign to terrorize our nation’s law enforcement officers.”
Bryan McCann, a professor at LSU whose work focuses on race relations and crime, questioned the motives of adding the additional protections to first responders. He noted that hate crime laws are specifically designed to focus on characteristics that have made people — particularly minorities — targets in the past, but there is no evidence of increased targeted violence toward law enforcement.
“I have yet to hear a compelling case that law enforcement fits that bill,” he said. “The notion that there is an activist movement out there seeking to kill police officers says more about attitudes of those making these claims.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.
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