- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Louisiana is set to become the first state in the nation where prosecutors can bring hate crime charges against individuals who target police officers or firefighters — a move some call an overreaction to fear of attacks on law enforcement.

Lawmakers this week overwhelmingly approved legislation to expand the state’s current hate crime statute to include first responders as a new protected class. The law already includes enhanced penalties for crimes that target victims based on race, gender, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.

Officials with Gov. John Bel Edwards’s office confirmed Wednesday that he plans to sign the measure into law.

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Passage of the bill comes at a time when law enforcement organizations across the country have expressed increasing concern over attacks on police officers.

“Talking heads on television and inflammatory rhetoric on social media are inciting acts of hatred and violence toward our nation’s peace officers,” said National Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury in support of the March introduction of a similar federal bill that would expand hate crime laws nationally to include protections for law enforcement. “Our members are increasingly under fire by individuals motivated by nothing more than a desire to kill or injure a cop.”

While statistics released by the FBI this week show 41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2015, a 20 percent decrease from 2014, others have raised the alarm over an uptick in fatal shootings of police officers in the first months of 2016. Eighteen firearms-related line of duty deaths have been reported so far this year, a 38 percent increase over the same time in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

State Rep. Lance Harris, who authored Louisiana’s hate-crime expansion bill, said he hopes his state’s new law will encourage others to support similar efforts at both the national and state level.

“I hope it does draw attention to the matter so that there can be discussion in other areas,” Mr. Harris said.

His inspiration to draft the bill came after a Texas sheriff’s deputy, Darren Goforth, was gunned down at a gas station in 2015 by a man who claimed to be retaliating against police. Mental health experts have since said the suspect, Shannon Miles, suffers from schizophrenia. Mr. Miles was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and is currently being housed at a psychiatric facility before being re-evaluated.

But whereas supporters see the hate crime bill as providing necessary protections as a result of anti-cop rhetoric, critics are concerned the new penalties will be misused to stifle protests against police.

“We also see it as an attack — a legislative attack and political retaliation for work people have been doing against police brutality,” said Ejike Obineme, an organizer with the New Orleans Chapter of Black Youth Project 100. “It doesn’t coincide with the precedent set for protected classes, like groups that have been historically vulnerable or attacked.”

Under the Louisiana law, anyone who targets law enforcement for crimes ranging from murder to theft could face an additional sentence of six months in jail for a misdemeanor and five years in jail for a felony.

The focus of hate crime statutes has typically been protection of vulnerable groups who might be victimized due to their race or religion, according to Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied hate crimes. But in recent years, statutes have expanded to include protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and in several states even homelessness.

“It’s not inconceivable that some occupational groups might be added as well,” Mr. Levin said. “The problem with adding the police is that they are among several occupations that are particularly dangerous. It comes with the territory, it’s part of the job.”

It’s difficult to say how frequently the hate crimes statute might be used to prosecute individuals who target first responders, according to prosecutors.

“The proof is not easy but sometime the circumstances of the incident point to that motivation,” said E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. “It is not impossible. If the opportune case arises, I’m sure it will be used.”

Only nine hate crimes were reported in Louisiana in 2014, the latest year that data was submitted to the FBI by departments across the state.

No police officers have been killed in Louisiana this year. But of the nine who died in the line of duty in the state in 2015, five were fatally shot, according to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund.

While recent ambushes on police have garnered national media attention, including the killing of Goforth, Mr. Levin said the violent incidents appeared to be a passing phenomenon rather than a sustained trend.

“There were a few weeks that the number of ambushes increased, but the number of incidents involving violence against the police have declined over the years,” Mr. Levin said. “I can understand why the police would think they might be justified in arguing to be added, but that was a short term blip on the radar screen of crime.”

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