WASHINGTON — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards( D) intends to sign a bill this week that will allow prosecutors to try longer sentences for people who attack police officer, EMTs or firefighters because they detest them.
It’s a strange policy that may turn out to be useless.
The bill awaiting the governor’s signature, HB 953, is widely known as “Blue Lives Matter, ” a phrase patterned after the Black Lives Matter movement and that stands on the opposite side of criticisms of police brutality. The Blue Lives Matter movement argues that police officers are under siege and need extra protections.
Louisiana, like many other states, already penalise people who assault or kill policemen more harshly than people who assault or kill, tell, waitress or pizza delivery guys. The state automatically categorizes cop-killing as first-degree slaying — a charge that could result in the capital punishment if convicted — even when it’s not premeditated. Assaulting or battering a police officer also comes with a harsher charge.
It’s easy for attorneys to demonstrate a victim of violence was a police officer, but proving intent and get inside an offender’s mind is extremely difficult. So why is Louisiana making prosecutors prove that an assault on a policeman was motivated by hatred for policemen when the nation already has tougher penalties for assaulting policemen, regardless of the motivation?
It’s all about sending a message.
By attaining police officer a protected class — like race, national origin and religion — the state is doing more to value its officers, said Louisiana state Rep. Lance Harris( R ), the bill’s author.
But Dane S. Ciolino, a statute professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, doubts the bill will actually protect policemen more than existing law does.
“There’s certainly no gap in criminal matters, ” he said. “It’s just showboating for the constituents.”
At least 37 states have enhanced penalties for assaulting a police officer, regardless of the attacker’s motive. Some countries do that by considering harming a police officer to be an “aggravating factor, ” which heightens the severity of the sentence for the alleged offense. In New York, being convicted in the aggravated murder of a police officer carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. It is also an automatic first-degree charge. Michigan has a similar statute.
These protections extend beyond police officer. Florida law, for example, mandates that the assault or battery of public transit employees — along with law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs — be reclassified as a higher charge. Other jurisdictions — including New York and Washington , D.C. — add extra years in prison for assaulting a bus or taxi driver in hopes of deterring violence against transportation workers.
Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, worries that HB 953 may actually scale back current hate crimes statutes if police officers are included.
“We might very well dilute the hate crime statute so that it is weakened beyond repair, ” he told. “Originally the idea of hate crime ordinances was to protect vulnerable groups of americans.”
“There are a number of very dangerous occupations, but it’s not only the police who may be injured or killed on the job, ” Levin added.
A U.S. city bus driver was assaulted every three days in 2012, according to estimates from the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor union for transit employees in the U.S. and Canada. But Larry Hanley, international president of the ATU, doesn’t watch the need to give public transit workers additional protection under hate crimes statutes.
“To the extent that bus drivers represent the government, you could argue that this stem from some hatred of government workers, ” Hanley said. “But, candidly, the majority of members of the crimes involving assaults on transit workers are connected to fare disputes, to people’s own mental issues — we have people who get on buses who are mentally disturbed — people who are drunk and have taken part in assault. So I’m not sure this really fits the mold.”
Taxi drivers have also opposed hard for the protections afforded to their profession — and for the right reasons. They are 30 times more likely to be killed on the job than employees in other occupations, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Much like city bus drivers, they tend to work in isolated surroundings and transport potentially violent strangers.
They are also more likely to belong to an already protected class under hate-crime ordinances. Most cab drivers in New York, for example, immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or Ecuador.
On Saturday, Sirajul Islam Khan, a taxi driver in the Bronx, was attacked when he took out some cash to dedicate a customer change. The assailant allegedly beat Khan and wailed that he would kill the cab driver — not for being a cab driver, but for being Muslim.
“Prosecuting crimes against a worker as a hate crime belies the long struggle for racial justice in our country, ” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, told HuffPost. “We have sought hate crime prosecution only when a driver has been targeted because of their race or religion. There are conditions that attain workers vulnerable to crime on the job. But that is an occupational security matter , not a hate crime.”
Levin pointed out that for a brief period of time following large-scale anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and Baltimore, ambushes of police officers did rise. But this was short-lived.
“I would be much more likely to support the idea of expanding hate crime statutes to protect police officer if there were some long-term trend whereby law enforcement was at greater risk than usual, ” he said.
Even E. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, doubts his members will be able to do much with the new law.
“Motivation is by its very nature hard to prove, but sometimes when the facts align correctly motivation can be shown, ” Adams said. “But it is a challenge. It’s a challenge under the current law, it’ll be a challenge under the amendment.”
The hate crime moniker, Adams underlined, “is merely a sentence enhancement tool.” And Louisiana already has laws that more harshly punish people who assault policeman.
“This legislation is unnecessary, ” Ciolino, the law prof, told. “But the Louisiana criminal code is littered with unnecessary and redundant provisions, so this is nothing new.”
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