Hate Crime Laws as a Tool for Police Protection?

Policing

Tim Bryan, Graduate Student, York University, Canada.

On May 26 2016, Louisiana became the first US state to provide protections for police officers and first responders under its hate crime laws. The amended State statute increases penalties for individuals convicted of committing felony offenses against police officers, fire fighters, and emergency medical personnel. This new provision, which adds occupational status to existing grounds already enumerated within the statute such as race, age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, effectively makes the violence experienced by police officers comparable with the violence experienced by individuals targeted on the bases of their identity. A number of other States are currently considering similar amendments to their own hate crime laws.

High profile incidents of targeted police shootings such as the tragic murders of five police officers in Dallas Texas this past July, have not only fuelled calls for increased police protections, but have contributed to the perception that violence aimed at police is on the rise. While police officers are killed in the line of duty every year in the United States, data collected by the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund indicates that targeted killings of police officers are extremely rare. A much larger proportion of officer deaths in fact, are due to traffic accidents or to job related illnesses rather than deliberate killings.

Nevertheless, major police groups such as The Fraternal Order of Police, an organization representing 300 000 officers throughout the US, have called for federal hate crime statues to be amended to include police officers as a protected group in response to increasing levels of hostility toward police. Activists have criticized these moves by showing that in many States, targeting a police officer is already treated as an aggravating factor at sentencing and thus offenders are already subject to the harshest penalties possible. Currently those convicted of murdering police officers in Louisiana face and automatic life sentence or a possible death sentence. It is therefore, unclear what would be gained by including police under hate crime statutes since their primary purpose is to increase penalties for offenders. Critics also question whether police are in fact being targeted in increasing numbers as proponents of these laws claim, citing Federal Bureau of Investigation data that indicates that the number of officer fatally shot while on duty is at its lowest level in decades.

Whether or not police are in greater danger now than in previous years or whether the dangers of police works are being exaggerated in order to advance a pro-police agenda, the emergence of ‘blue lives matter laws’ as they are commonly known, is troubling for another reason. Calls for these laws come at a time of growing criticism of policing in America ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement. From Chicago to Los Angeles; from Baltimore and Atlanta; from New York City to Cleveland to Ferguson, Black activists have forced a new conversation about police violence, police accountability, police use of force, and police relations with the public and with Black communities in particular. At the core of this movement is a claim that policing in America is racially conceived, organized, deployed, and experienced. The racialized structure of policing reveals a fundamental truth of the American experience: that some lives are deemed more important, more worthy of protection, more worthy of dignity than others.

But (perhaps unsurprisingly) demands for police reform and for a new discourse on policing have been met with resistance. The now familiar phrase, ‘Black Lives Matter’, has been met by some with the response, ‘all lives matter’ in an effort to transform a justified call for Black equality into an unacceptable demand for preferential treatment. Some have even gone as far as suggesting that not only are the demands of Black Lives Matter activists and their allies inappropriate, but their vocal presence has created a climate so hostile to police that their message poses a threat to police and public safety.

When read against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter activism and the current spotlight on police actions, what is apparent is that these laws, short of providing greater protection to police, attempt to do something altogether different. In making morally and legally equivalent the deaths of police officers with the deaths of racialized people on the basis of their identity, ‘blue lives matter laws’ attempt to recast police as victims in the same way that marginalized communities have been victimized, not only by hate crime groups, but unfortunately by police as well. And in doing so, they suggest that the systems which expose racialized bodies to conditions of death – racism, anti-black racism, and white supremacy – are analogous to the sources that place bodies in police uniforms at risk – ‘unjustified’ criticism of police, their practices, policies and action. In effect, hate crime laws are being drafted to advance a strategy designed to deflect attention away from important and much need questions about policing by universalizing the experience of victimization.

Violence towards police officers is of course never acceptable and public denunciation is required. Police should have every tool available to ensure their safety as they perform a vital service in safeguarding the communities they serve. And certainly, utilizing existing statues to protect police may be absolutely appropriate in some circumstances. But when police safety is used as a pretext for amending hate crime laws when the real aim is to counter criticism of police actions and stifle a movement representing marginalized communities for whom hate crime laws were initially designed, we ought to be concerned about the potential future of hate crime laws and their ability to protect marginalized communities and advance social justice.

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