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Louisiana Moves To Extend Hate Crime Protection For Police Officers


Louisiana is about to get the country's first law that adds hate crime penalties for crimes against police. The governor is expected to sign the bill Thursday. Other states have considered similar legislation over the past two years, ever since the anti-police protests in Ferguson, Mo. NPR's Martin Kaste explains why.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Republican State Representative Lance Harris says the police didn't ask him to introduce this bill. He just thought it was the right thing to do.

LANCE HARRIS: If you're going to have hate crimes, then I think that the first responders and police officers should be covered under those hate crime provisions.

KASTE: The bill adds extra penalties when someone commits a crime against someone just for being a police officer. It also covers people like paramedics. And Harris says this about protecting the people that society counts on in emergencies. But Shanelle Matthews says that's not what this is about.

SHANELLE MATTHEWS: I think that the intent behind legislation like this is not necessarily because folks think that police they are actually being attacked, but instead to divert America's attention away from the actual problem, which is that we are not holding cops accountable for killing people.

KASTE: Matthews is a spokeswoman for the Black Lives Matter National Network. She sees this as part of a political backlash against the activists who criticize police.

MATTHEWS: This will give them just yet another weapon to yield against - to wield against community members to say, you know, we're a protected class. And, you know, we're incredulous of this legislation actually benefiting the community.

KASTE: And a lot of people scoff at the very idea that police could be the victims of hate crimes. But why not, says Chuck Canterbury. He's the president of the Fraternal Order Of Police.

CHUCK CANTERBURY: There appears to be some feeling that hate is reserved to people of minority classes of race, religion or sexual orientation. But, you know, I just think that's a very limited view of hate in the world. And until they've walked in the shoes of a police officer and seen the hate strictly because you're enforcing the law, then I'm sure that they don't understand.

KASTE: Now, the statistics don't show a significant increase in the number of attacks on police. In fact, far fewer cops are killed now than a generation ago. But there is evidence that more of the attacks are ambushes. The sneak attack killing of two New York officers four months after Ferguson had a chilling effect on police around the country. Many of them still recall the victims' names.

LEON TAYLOR: I mean, these officers in New York, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were guilty of nothing more than being police and being in uniform and doing their jobs.

KASTE: That's Leon Taylor, an African-American who was a cop in Baltimore for 10 years. He thinks hate crime protection makes sense because of all the anger against police these days.

TAYLOR: The rhetoric that's gone out is unjustified. A lot of people don't want to be profiled by the police. The police don't want to be profiled by the citizens.

KASTE: Of course, prosecutors are already pretty aggressive about going after anybody who attacks a cop. Another law isn't really going to change that. This seems to be more about sending a message. Donald Green is a political science professor at Columbia who's written about the politics of hate crime laws.

DONALD GREEN: It's certainly a - it would be a symbolic victory for police. They would feel as though they've been vindicated to some extent. I mean, the society, they feel, doesn't properly accord them the kind of thanks and respect to which they're due.

KASTE: And it says a lot about the current political moment - the fact that that respect is being sought by including police on a list of potential victims of hate crime. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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