New 'Blue Lives Matter' Laws Raise Concerns Among Activists

May 28, 2017

Following a spike in deadly attacks on police, more than a dozen states have responded this year with "Blue Lives Matter" laws that come down even harder on crimes against law enforcement officers, raising concern among some civil rights activists of a potential setback in police-community relations.

Blue Lives Matter laws
Credit Associated Press

The new measures build upon existing statutes allowing harsher sentences for people who kill or assault police. They impose even tougher penalties, extend them to more offenses, including certain nonviolent ones such as trespassing in Missouri, and broaden the list of victims covered to include off-duty officers, police relatives and some civilians at law enforcement agencies.
Proponents say an escalation of violence against police justifies the heightened protections.

"What we're getting into as a society is that people are targeting police officers not by something that they may have done to them, but just because they're wearing that uniform," said Republican state Rep. Shawn Rhoads of Missouri, a former detective.

People who have been protesting aggressive police tactics are expressing alarm.

"This is another form of heightened repression of activists," said Zaki Baruti, an activist and community organizer from St. Louis County. "It sends a message to protesters that we better not look at police cross-eyed."

Police deaths on the job have generally declined over the past four decades, from a recent high of 280 in 1974 to a low of 116 in 2013, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. But they rose last year to 143, including 21 killed in ambushes — the highest number of such attacks in more than two decades.

Nearly all states already have laws enhancing the punishments for certain violent crimes against law officers.
One year ago, Louisiana became the first state to enact a law adding offenses against police, firefighters and emergency medical responders to its list of hate crimes.
More states began expanding their penalties after last summer, when five officers were killed in a July 7 sniper attack at a protest against police brutality in Dallas, and three more officers were slain in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 10 days later.
Penalty enhancements have passed this year in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia, most of which are led by Republicans. Similar bills are under consideration in other states.

Georgia's Back the Badge Act increases mandatory minimum prison terms for assault or battery against public safety officers

Some civil rights activists contend such laws will make it more difficult to prosecute officers and easier to charge protesters who confront police. They say such measures could undermine the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other shootings by police around the country.
These laws "deepen divisions between law enforcement and communities with no tangible benefit to law enforcement," said Sonia Gill Hernandez at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Blue Lives Matters laws

Some question whether such steps are a deterrent. Jens Ohlin, a criminal law expert at Cornell University Law School in New York, said the new laws "reek of political pressure to do something symbolic as a way of expressing solidarity with police officers."
"The problems that need to be solved are really problems on the ground. They're not gaps in the statute," Ohlin said. "You need to give police officers the tools necessary to protect themselves on the street, and you have to defuse dangerous situations on the ground before they escalate into violence against police officers."