If Donald Trump’s “Law and Order” convention is any indication, Republicans in Congress could soon try to amend federal law to equate violence against police officers to assaults fueled by bigotry.
The Blue Lives Matter Act of 2016, which was introduced to the House in April, gained two co-sponsors in the two weeks prior to the Republican Convention. The bill would amend Chapter 13 of Title 10 of the US Code to “make an attack on a police officer a hate crime.”
Trump’s convention focused heavily on the idea that crime is out of control, in part, because police are on the receiving end of unfair criticism.
“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police,” Trump said during his speech on Thursday. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.”
The “Blue Lives Matter” bill is named after a retort to protesters decrying violent police attacks on the black community, which often go unpunished. It was first coined in November 2014 by a radio personality defending Darren Wilson — the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager and resident of Ferguson, Mo.
While those who attack police officers already face the heavy brunt of the law, cops who kill civilians, regardless of their skin color, rarely do. The Wall Street Journal noted that 12 police were charged for crimes in the US, despite killing 1,200 people on-duty. None were convicted, including three of the five officers who have been acquitted after taking part in Freddie Gray’s homicide.
Gray, a Baltimore resident, was killed by local police after being placed on his stomach, unsecured, in the back of a police van — after being illegally arrested. Parts of the city erupted in protests after Gray was killed.
After the killing last week of three police officers in Baton Rouge, La., there had been 31 cops killed this year in the line of duty. According to The Guardian, 148 of the 599 people killed by police in the US this year have been black.
The federal effort to make cop-killing a hate crime comes alongside pushes on the state level. Next month, Louisiana’s “Blue Lives Matter” law goes into effect. Legislators in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Florida have introduced similar initiatives.
The House bill’s sponsor is Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), a deeply conservative lawmaker who supports banning Syrian refugees, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and shredding the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. The Blue Lives Matter Act’s sixteen co-sponsors are all also Republicans.
A similar bill was introduced in the US Senate in 2007. Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and now-former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) were the sponsors of that legislation, which would have added mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes against police officers.
The legislation was named The Daniel Faulkner Law Enforcement Officers and Judges Protection Act, after the Philadelphia police officer for whose 1983 murder Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to be executed.
Critics have said Abu-Jamal’s due process was systematically violated throughout courtroom proceedings. Amnesty International called his trial “manifestly unfair.” In 2011, Jamal’s death sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole. A former Black Panther, Abu-Jamal is widely reviled by conservatives as a poster-boy cop-killer.
Hate crime legislation is not just meant to protect people who are especially likely to be victims of crime, but victims who have less access to justice without intervention by constitutional powers. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was enacted in 2009 in part to provide a federal remedy when local jurisdictions were unwilling or unable to prosecute violent crimes motivated by prejudice. The act is named for two murder victims: Shepard, tortured and crucified because he was gay, and Byrd, a black man lynched by a gang of white supremacists who dragged him over a mile behind a speeding pickup truck.
A federal hate crime prosecution means harsher mandatory penalties for crimes against police, already an aggravated offense in most jurisdictions, and creates an opening for what is arguably a double jeopardy. Federal prosecutors would be able to bring hate crime cases against defendants acquitted in state court. They would also better be able to coerce defendants into pleading under threat of long prison sentences.
Legal commentary site Mimesis Law called the proposed “Blue Lives Matter” bill “a slap in the face for hate crimes,” saying Buck had “aped” earnest existing hate crime legislation.
Included among the organizations lobbying for the legislation are the National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations. The former has been the target of Black Lives Matters protests this week. Demonstrators say the institution is routinely “defending officers accused of brutality,” according to “Democracy Now.”
Police departments are also natural allies for the National Rifle Association (NRA), despite the fact that cops are often worried about the spread of high-powered guns throughout US streets. Some large police associations have split from the NRA politically in recent years, but it still enjoys a cozy relationship with departments and personnel thanks to fundraising ties and firearms certifications.
Prominent NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre has spoken in support of Buck’s bill and has even given an address titled “Blue Lives Matter” at a police association annual banquet. Two months ago the NRA released a video called The Brave Who Wear the Badge, labeling protesters as “ungrateful,” and calling their criticism of police “unjust” and “shallow.” Many of the corporations for whom the organization lobbies market products to law enforcement, like TASER, Remington, Winchester, and Lenco.
Many of these companies have seen a threat to their bottom lines in widespread criticism of militarized police ordinance (though as with Executive limitations on civil forfeiture, there are ample loopholes). The Blue Lives Matter Act and its local sister statutes strengthen public perception, which is contrary to statistical evidence, that police officers are under heightened threat and that expansion in the scope and deployment of law enforcement arsenals is justified.