- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2016

Louisiana is the first state in the nation to enact a law making it a hate crime to target police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — a move that critics say is an overreaction to tensions between communities and law enforcement.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law last week, enabling prosecutors to pursue increased penalties against individuals who target first responders for crimes ranging from murder to theft.

Supporters of the law, which faced little resistance in the state legislature, say it will send a message that attacks against law enforcement and first responders will not be tolerated.

“The men and women who put their lives on the line every day, often under very dangerous circumstances, are true heroes, and they deserve every protection that we can give them,” Mr. Edwards said. “They serve and protect our communities and our families. The overarching message is that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Louisiana.”

Critics say the bill is just that — a message and little else. Prosecutors can already seek increased penalties for attacks on law enforcement officers in the state. The law will likely do little to increase protection for police beyond current existing law, Dane S. Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law told the Huffington Post.

“There’s certainly no gap in the criminal code,” Mr. Ciolino said. “It’s just showboating for the constituents.”

Under the Louisiana law, anyone who targets law enforcement or first responders could face an additional sentence of six months in jail for a misdemeanor and five years in jail for a felony.

Opponents are concerned that the signal sent by the new law aggravates tensions between the Black Lives Matter movement and police officers.

The Louisiana legislation and a federal proposal introduced in the House this year that would expand hate crime laws nationally to include protections for law enforcement both have been dubbed “Blue Lives Matter” bills.

“This bill is nothing more than a veiled attempt by the defenders of police brutality to divide Americans with a false choice between protecting black lives and police officers,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “Presented with an opportunity to bring communities together by addressing real concerns with police practices, history will remember that the governor opted for a cynical and hollow course of action.”

State Rep. Lance Harris, who wrote Louisiana’s hate crime expansion bill, said he hopes the new law will encourage others to support similar efforts at 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 being housed at a psychiatric facility before being reevaluated.

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 sometimes 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 Officers Memorial Fund.

Among those killed in the line of duty last year was Louisiana State Trooper Steven Vincent, whose memory law enforcement leaders invoked at Thursday’s bill signing.

“My heart remains heavy following the tragic loss last year of Senior Trooper Steven Vincent, who simply responded to assist an individual in a ditch when he was met with gunfire,” Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said. “For those individuals who choose to target our heroes, the message formalized in this legislative act should be clear and the consequences severe.”

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

While statistics released by the FBI this month 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. Twenty firearms-related line-of-duty deaths have been reported so far this year, a 25 percent increase over the same time in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

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