New 'Blue Lives Matter' laws raise concerns among activists
Proponents say an escalation of violence against police justifies the heightened protections
By Jim Salter and David A. Lieb
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — 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.
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.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt cited the case of Bradley Verstraete as one example of the need for such measures. Verstraete was accused of raising an ax handle against police officers responding to a disturbance call in 2015. Police shot and wounded him.
Verstraete was sentenced in February to 8½ years in prison for attempted murder. His sentence could have been doubled under a law signed this month.
Troy Huser, president of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the measure a "knee-jerk response" to the attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
"If you double that sentence, in my opinion, it becomes draconian," Huser said.
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.
When Missouri passed its bill this month, the legal organization lambasted it as "an overt display of political posturing" over the Brown case. It dismissed talk of a "war on police" as unsubstantiated.
The Missouri legislation would add involuntary manslaughter, stalking, property damage and trespassing to the list of crimes bearing enhanced penalties for targeting police. It also would apply the tougher punishments to crimes involving officers' spouses, children, parents, siblings, grandparents and in-laws.
It is awaiting the signature of Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who vowed to put in place "the toughest penalties possible for anyone who attacks a law enforcement officer."
"Missouri will show no mercy to cowards who assault cops," he said.
Georgia's Back the Badge Act increases mandatory minimum prison terms for assault or battery against public safety officers. Some of Arkansas' enhanced penalties for targeting current and retired law officers, first responders and their families were passed via an emergency declaration, making them effective immediately upon Gov. Asa Hutchinson's signature.
Arizona's Blue Lives Matter Law expands the crime of aggravated assault against on-duty officers to apply to off-duty officers not engaged in police activities.
Some lawmakers also are seeking enhanced federal laws. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Ted Poe — both Texas Republicans — recently reintroduced the Back the Blue Act that would increase the punishments for crimes against law enforcement officers. It would make killing a judge or police officer punishable by death or a minimum of 30 years in prison.
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."