Forty-one police officers were "feloniously killed" last year while in the line of duty, according to the FBI. I hesitate to qualify any number referring to loss of life, but that is very low. It marked a 20 percent decline from the previous year, and was one of the lowest totals in recorded history. Now contrast that with 990 people shot dead by police last year, per The Washington Post’s count. Relatively speaking, this may be one of the safest times to be an American law enforcement officer ever.
That’s why it’s stupefying that a Louisiana legislator is trying to amend the state’s hate-crime law to protect police officers. State representative Lance Harris, a Republican, said that the catalyst for House Bill 953, nicknamed the Blue Lives Matter bill, was the August 2015 murder of a Texas county sheriff’s deputy named Darren Goforth. Harris believes that Goforth’s killer shot him at a gas station specifically because Goforth was a police officer, thereby making the murder a hate crime (meaning, a crime perpetrated against someone due to their race, gender, or other inherent identity). So Harris’s bill, which Governor John Bel Edwards is expected to sign, would become the first state law in the nation to add law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel to a list of identities protected under a hate crime statute.
This is all kinds of wrong. First off, being a cop is a job, not an identity. The Anti-Defamation League voiced opposition to the bill for this very reason, arguing that hate-crime protections “should remain limited to immutable characteristics, those qualities that can or should not be changed.” Officers can quit or be fired from their jobs, but I can’t quit being black.
What’s more, when a law says that cops can be victims of "hate crimes," the implication is that cops have been the victims of a sustained campaign of intimidation. That’s bullshit, of course. "This bill is a direct response to the work of Black Lives Matter," LaToya Lewis, cochair of the New Orleans chapter of the activist group Black Youth Project 100, told MTV News. She added that HB 953 would "mock and criminalize those who work to end police brutality."
The misguided thinking behind the bill stems from how we’ve been taught to view police work. It is a dangerous job. That's not now nor has it ever been in dispute. But the fact remains that officers are more often perpetrators than victims of violence, and that police brutality — especially against people of color — is a very real and very pressing problem. The Louisiana bill not only wrongly positions police officers as the true victims in the Black Lives Matter era, but also infers that calls for police reform are somehow dangerous to the officers themselves.
This idea is why we saw FBI director James Comey saying that cops are "under siege" -- from viral phone videos showing their own misbehavior. It’s why some people keep pretending that the mythical "Ferguson effect" — the belief that criticism of cops leads to more crime — is real (it isn't). It’s why we saw a Blue Lives Matter movement form after two New York police officers were murdered in 2014, their deaths callously used to spit at those protesting both individual and systemic police abuses.
The intended effect of this kind of nonsense is to soothe police officers and those who lionize them, not to save the lives of people who the police are killing. But not only is the bill ridiculous, it’s also unnecessary, given that violence against police officers is already a crime. Kathryn Sheely, a public defender with 10 years of experience in Louisiana, says that protecting police officers under HB 953 just adds up to five years onto a prison sentence for those crimes. "While protecting first responders is a noble goal, the crimes addressed by this bill are already illegal," she told MTV News in an email. "Police officers and firefighters are already granted protected status in law. No one is claiming that crimes against cops go unpunished. Adding first responders to the state hate crimes statute confuses the purpose behind the statute to protect traditionally targeted minority groups."
That’s what legislation like this is meant to do, really: confuse people who might otherwise join those demanding less abusive, less discriminatory law enforcement. Most citizens and activists don’t hate the police. They just want better police, who are accountable to justice like everyone else.
And the bill’s worst consequences are the ones Harris never intended. "The first indirect effect of this statute on young people of color will be to decrease the amount of money available to represent them if they find themselves in need of a public defender," Sheely said. "When the public defender has to spend resources defending complicated cases, the people who are picked up on lesser offenses and crimes of poverty lose. The people who are arrested after a stop-and-frisk or failing to use a turn signal lose."
Just like the talk about the "Ferguson effect," the bill is also an insult to the officers, perpetrating this "Blue Lives Matter" mentality that babies cops when we should instead be honest about the need for widespread police reforms.
Not that they’ll see it that way. "[The bill is] important because symbolically it advises that there is a value to the lives of police officers," former police lieutenant and Blue Lives Matter spokesman Randy Sutton recently told CNN. But Americans already recognize that value, in spirit and in law. Louisiana, and every other state, needs to find a way to advocate for police officers without screwing life up for the very people those officers are supposed to protect. HB 953 doesn’t protect cops so much as avoid finding better ways to protect the rest of us.