Are Attacks on Police Hate Crimes?

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Louisiana may become the first state to protect cops under hate-crime laws.

By Kate Wheeling

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Police in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

In Louisiana, new legislation that would amend the state’s hate-crime laws to include police officers as a protected group has passed the House and the Senate with little opposition. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who has publicly endorsed the bill — known as Blue Lives Matter—will likely sign it into law before the end of the month.

Given the success of the bill in Louisiana so far, other states may soon follow suit. A bill to include police under federal hate-crime laws is already before Congress. This is the first time since hate-crime laws began taking shape toward the end of the 20th century that an occupational group has been considered for inclusion. The police are certainly an unpopular bunch in the United States right now — the number of Americans who have little or no confidence in the police has reached an all-time high, according to Gallup polls — but do they need the protection of hate-crime laws?

“The irony here is that the biggest concern that the country has now has been about mass incarceration, and doing something about the excessive number of people in prison.”

Hate-crime law can be traced back to 1964’s Civil Rights Act, which protected people from race-, religion-, or nationality-based discrimination while patronizing public spaces, attending public school, voting, and otherwise engaging in federally protected activities. The rise of identity-based social movements in the wake of the Civil Rights Act set the stage for official hate-crime laws, as advocates representing oppressed groups and minorities argued that bias-motivated crimes deserved more punitive punishments. In the tough-on-crime environment of the 1980s, longer sentences came into favor, allowing state-level hate-crime laws to proliferate. As Americans have become more sensitive to prejudice, the number of recognized marginalized groups have multiplied, as has the number of those groups seeking protection.

Therein lies the trouble with hate-crime laws, argues James Jacobs, director of New York University’s Center for Research in Crime and Justice and author of Hate Crime: Criminal Law and Identity Politics. “It’s politically very difficult to oppose any group’s effort to be covered,” Jacobs says. “So we’ll have a fight among potential crime victims about whose victimization is worse.” The existence of hate-crime laws, according to Jacobs, forces legislatures to decide which prejudices are more deserving of harsher punishments than others — an inherently prejudiced exercise.

“I predicted that one group after another would seek to be included in the laws and that has certainly happened,” Jacobs says. Indeed, according to a 2015 report summarizing the current state of hate law statutes in the United States:

Only 45 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that categorize hate crime (i.e., the states that do not have legislation include Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming). From this, 32 states cover disabilities, 31 cover sexual orientation, 28 cover gender, 16 cover transgender/gender-identity, 13 cover age, 5 cover political affiliations, and 3 cover homelessness (Anti-Defamation League, 2006). It is clear from comparing the states that have no legislation on hate crimes to the various statutes across other states that there is no current standardization of enforcing or defining what constitutes a hate crime.

Proponents of Blue Lives Matter blame inflammatory media reports for fueling a war on police. “Our members are increasingly under fire by individuals motivated by nothing more than a desire to kill or injure a cop,” Chuck Canterbury, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement. The average number of cop killings has been falling since the 1970s, however, and adding protected groups doesn’t actually protect their members, according to Jacobs, but rather serves to further punish some criminals through longer sentences. Hate-crime laws essentially layer extra punishment on top of existing, generic criminal law.

“The irony here is that the biggest concern that the country has now has been about mass incarceration, and doing something about the excessive number of people in prison,” Jacobs says. Increasing the number of offenses that qualify as hate crimes only serves to un-due much of that work.

Opponents of the movement to include police in hate-crime legislation argue that, despite the ire toward police in America today, the persecution of police is hardly on par with the persecution that other protected groups have faced. But hate-crime laws don’t only protect historically oppressed populations; as many as one-quarter of offenders charged with hate crimes are black. In addition, most states already support the notion that crimes against police deserve harsher punishments. Many states have laws making crime against police officers an aggravating factor during sentencing. “Even if its not in the law, attacking a police officer is always treated very seriously,” Jacobs says. “If you attack a police officer you’re going to be very vigorously prosecuted.”

The inclusion of groups under hate-crime laws is more symbolic than practical, Jacobs claims. It’s a way for criminal law to express dissent for discrimination. “People are trying to make the point that aggression against police is a very bad thing, just like aggression by the police against minorities is a very bad thing,” he says. “And I say, ‘Yes, that’s true and that’s why we have criminal law.’ All of these aggressions against people are bad, and they already are covered.”

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