Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A New York state representative wants to pass a “Blue Lives Matter” law that would make police officers a protected class.
Ronald Castorina, a New York State Assemblyman from Staten Island, has proposed a bill that would make it a hate crime to physically assault a police officer. The so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill would register police as a protected class in the state, adding “uniform” to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, and religious status.
For police unions, it’s a no-brainer. But for everybody else, including police officers themselves, expanding hate laws to include “uniform” as a protected class won’t solve the problems—real and imagined—that the bill’s supporters hope to address.
As the New York Observer reports, Assemblyman Castorina means to prevent more murders of police officers like the recent massacres in Baton Rouge and Dallas. This bill would upgrade penalties for assaulting cops by a class automatically. So a uniform-motivated assault on an on-duty officer would jump from a Class C felony to a Class B felony, for example, dramatically increasing penalties for crimes that already come with sentences of up to 30 years in prison.
But the goal of hate-crime legislation is not deterrence entirely. Hate-crime bills also serve as a “mechanism to encourage investigation” in crimes that might not be investigated otherwise, as Jeannine Bell, professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington, explained to U.S. News last year. Most crimes that are prosecuted under hate-crime acts are minor crimes, such as vandalism—crimes too minor to trigger an investigation under other circumstances. Police always get down to the bottom of crimes against police.
The idea to add uniform as a protected category is a persistent one. In March, Colorado Representative Kenneth R. Buck introduced legislation to add police as a protected class under federal hate crime laws. Chuck Canterbury, president for the National Fraternal Order of Police, endorsed that bill. Canterbury has been pushing for this change since at least 2014, and he sent formal letters to the president and Congress pressing the police union position in January 2015. The police union hoped to add “uniform” to the list of protected categories in 2009, back when the federal hate-crimes law was expanded.
There is a deep irony in police asking for laws to shield them from hate, an irony that draws back to the historical origins of American law enforcement in slave patrols and “night watches”. Even the name for the New York bill and others like it, “Blue Lives Matter,” is squarely directed at the “Black Lives Matter” movement—a way of saying black lives don’t matter, blue lives do. “Blue Lives Matter” is an objection to black protesters’ demands for real criminal justice, packaged as an affirmation of law enforcement. (And to the “All Lives Matter” crowd: How often does “all lives matter” pop up in response to someone saying “blue lives matter”?)
If the framing of “Blue Lives Matter” laws is aggressive, it is in keeping with police unions’ sometimes pitiless rhetoric. Police unions regularly resort to vile or harsh language to answer criticism, even lashing out at the populations they are obligated to serve in response to scrutiny. At least the substance of “Blue Lives Matter” laws is concrete policy.
But as policy meant to prevent anti-police violence, a hate-crimes bill won’t do very much. Crimes against police—assaulting an officer during an arrest, for example—already come with stiff penalties. Crimes targeting police because they are police are rare. In fact, crimes against police of any kind are rare.
Despite the heinous massacres in Baton Rouge and Dallas, the nation is not in the grip of a war against police. The absolute number of police fatalities is at near-historical lows. More importantly, so is the rate of police fatalities. (Read Radley Balko for more context on these figures).
If Assemblyman Castorina hopes to serve the greatest number of New Yorkers with hate-crimes legislation, he’d think harder about his LGBT constituents. While crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender can already be investigated and prosecuted as hate crimes under state law, LGBT people are still more likely than any other minority group to be victimized in a hate crime nationwide.
And if Assemblyman Castorina wants to protect the lives of police specifically, perhaps he will revisit his opposition to the SAFE Act, a law that prohibits criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses from purchasing firearms. Police are not often the targets of hate crimes, but they are too often confronted by people who should not possess guns but do.
Instead, Assemblyman Castorina and Republicans who insist on Blue Lives Matter laws appear to be bent, like Donald Trump, on positioning themselves as friends of law and order. If their best policy ideas for protecting law enforcement are merely symbolic, though, they’re not helping police.