The strain between U.S. law enforcement and those they are sworn to protect has been quite evident as of late. Eager to douse the flames of this tension, the state of Louisiana has enacted the Blue Lives Matter Bill, in efforts to further protect law enforcement.
Looking towards the future, will this new law prove to be the bridge that mends the divide between civilians and police officers? Will it give officers explicit control over civilians? Or have those eager to subside the tension, unintentionally doused the flames with gasoline, instead of water.
What is the Blue Lives Matter Bill?
House Bill No. 953, also known as the Blue Lives Matter bill, was signed into law by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D), in late May 2016. The bill amends the provisions of the law regarding hate crimes to include law enforcement officials.
According to HB 935, this law is set to protect those who fall under the "perceived membership or service in, or employment with, an organization because of actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter." This also includes "any active or retired city, parish, or state law enforcement officer; in addition to any peace officer, sheriff, deputy sheriff, probation or parole officer, marshal, deputy, wildlife enforcement agent, or state correctional officer.”
The Blue Lives Matter bill protects law enforcement officials from a variety of criminal acts, from murder, to assault, institutional vandalism, and discretion of graves.
Violation of HB 953 carries a sentence of imprisonment with or without hard labor for no more than five years, a fine of no more than $5,000, or both.
What Does this Mean for the Relationship Between Citizen and Officer?
Moving into the future, and being under a new presidential regime has caused those weary of past police brutality to worry. Will this work for or against citizens?
There has been a misunderstanding between the bill Governor Edwards signed, and the law which officers are supposed to enforce.
In an interview with KTAC Calder Herbert, St. Martinville Police Chief, goes on to explain how "resisting an officer or battery of a police officer was just that charge, simply. But now, Governor Edwards, in the legislation, made it a hate crime."
Nevertheless, the claims made by Herbert do not coincide with what is listed in HB 953. There is nowhere in the house bill that enforces resisting arrest as a hate crime, according to Governor Edwards. However, with this law already being enforced in Acadiana, a large region of Louisiana, can we trust cops to enforce the law as it was intended? If not, what does that mean for the future of policing in sensitive areas?
Calder has admitted that one of his officers arrested a suspect under the newly enforced law, targeting the individual solely because he was a police officer.
In rebuttal to Governor Edwards claims, Calder admits that he was previously speaking in general terms regarding resisting an arrest being a hate crime. However, Calder told a local news station in late January that he sticks by his original claims made to KTAC.
Will HB 953 Create Prejudice Amongst Officers?
Many are now worried if the Blue Lives Matter bill will be carried out with bias. HB 953 is in the discretion of police officers, whose judgment in the past has shown bias.
In Chicago, in 2015 4 cops were caught lying under oath, after a video shown in court proved their statement false. A similar incident happened, also in Chicago, where 5 officers were caught lying on the witness stand.
Though this behavior is not carried out by all those who enforce the law, it's not an anomaly. To some, it's a scary reminder of the biased policing in urban communities.
Jennifer Riley-Collins, the executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, voiced her opinion on the passing of this bill. "The current state of policing in Mississippi and the failure of the legislature to pass meaningful police reform fosters continued community mistrust for law enforcement."
Collins' home state Mississippi recently passed a Blue Lives Matter bill of their own, in Senate Bill 2469.
How this will affect the future is not yet known, but if the behavior of law enforcement in the past is any indication, it doesn't look optimistic.
Louisiana native and family man Alton Sterling was captured on camera being shot dead by an on-duty police officer. If Sterling wasn't murdered, he could've been deemed a felon by the law of HB 953. Although Sterling was seemingly subdued with two officers on top of him and not resisting at the time he was killed.
This incident leads skeptics of HB 953 to believe that it will be the police's word against theirs. For civilians from lower income areas, who cannot afford legal representation, it's possible that due to the perception of law enforcement during an arrest, they may be wrongfully imprisoned.
As a result, the relevance of this law has been called into question. Between 2014 and 2016 in Louisiana, 21 officers have been killed in the line of duty; four in 2014, eight in 2015, and nine in 2016.
In 2016 alone, 22 civilians were killed by law enforcement, which declined from the 27 citizens killed by law enforcement in 2015.
"Rather than focusing on how to address a non-existent problem, we need to concentrate on addressing the very real and pressing problem of how poor communities and people of color (...) are targeted by biased over-policing devoid of transparency and accountability," said Collins.
The safety of law enforcement is important. However, it seems the Blue Lives Matter movement is a stark rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement. Although, it's been made evident that Blue Lives have always mattered. When a civilian assaults or harms an officer they are almost certainly prosecuted to the full extent of the law, which in turn makes this law irrelevant. Often when a law enforcement officer assaults or murders a civilian, when nonlethal restraint could've subdued the suspect, they are often never prosecuted or indicted.
"While protecting first responders is a noble goal, the crimes addressed by this bill are already illegal," states Kathryn Sheely, a public defender in Louisiana. "Police officers and firefighters are already granted protected status in law. No one is claiming that crimes against cops go unpunished."
The only way to bridge the gap between law enforcement and civilians is through communication and understanding; understanding that civilians don't hate cops, civilians hate bad cops, cops that act outside the law and are not held accountable. We all would like a future that involves positive relations between both sides; only time will tell if that's what the future will bring.