By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania could soon have its own Blue Lives Matter law.
Taking cues from Louisiana — which became the first state in the country to pass legislation deeming law enforcement officers a protected class — Pa. Representative Frank Burns (D-Cambria) introduced legislation July 13 to do the same in the Keystone State.
“I respect the difficult job police and corrections officers perform keeping us safe from criminals and I’m appalled that all too often, officers themselves are targeted for assault, ambush or – as we found out in Dallas – death,” Burns said in a prepared statement prior to releasing text of the proposed bill. “If ever there was a group in need of being a protected class, it’s those who put their lives on the line everyday to keep the rest of us safe from the criminal element.”
Burns’ bill would amend the portion of Pennsylvania’s crimes and offenses law that deals with assault. Under that portion of the law, a criminal penalty can be made more severe if it’s “motivated by hatred toward the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin, ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals.” Burns’ bill would add “employment as a law enforcement officer” to that list of protected groups. Not only would it include officers working the streets of municipalities, cities, and the state police; it would also encompass “a corrections officer, a parole agent, and a member of a park police department in a county of the third class.”
Similar proposals have been advanced in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Florida.
At least one American Civil Liberties Union chapter has spoken out against the premise behind such proposals. When an alderman put forward Blue Lives Matter legislation in Chicago, the ACLU of Illinois issued a statement calling the measure a “distraction” that attempts “to shift attention from the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has challenged police abuse.”
But the ACLU isn’t the only group pointing to the uselessness of such laws.
When Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz teamed up with North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis to introduce the “Back The Blue Act of 2016,” the response from conservative thought leaders was tepid. The federal version of Pennsylvania’s Blue Lives law would enact a 30-year minimum sentence for killing a federal judge, or law enforcement officer. Conservative author and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald told Christian Science Monitor that these bills were more about pandering to cops than solving any significant policing issues. She said it’s “easy for legislators to pass legislation and they feel like they’re accomplishing something…” Former cop and current University of South Carolina assistant law professor told CSM, “I’m not really sure what establishing a mandatory minimum of 30 years is going to do, unless you really want to get them into the federal system for some reason.” Conservative blogger and Hot Air contributor Taylor Millard put it more bluntly:
“There is no reason whatsoever to make killing a police officer a federal crime. FBI stats show they’ve gone down on a pretty steady rate, with spikes here and there. It’s an unpopular sentiment to have following the murder of five Dallas police officers (and last night’s shootout in Baltimore), but what Cornyn, Cruz, and Tillis are trying to do is score brownie points with the law enforcement community.”
Pennsylvania’s law is similarly unneeded, explains ACLU-PA’s Deputy Legal Director, Mary Catherine Roper. “The current criminal code actually provides stronger penalties than the ‘hate crimes’ designation,” she said. “Hate crimes is a one level enhancement, the crimes code provides in some places for two levels difference between, say, simple assault on [a citizen] and simple assault on a cop.”
“There are more important ways to support police,” she continued. “Like pay them a professional salary.”
It’s a tough time to be a cop, that’s certain. With deranged killers taking out their homicidal anger on police in Baton Rouge and Dallas — killing eight officers in total — there’s no doubt that good cops need our support. But proposing redundant laws isn’t the way to do that.
Read Rep. Burns’ Pennsylvania bill here. Track its progress here.
Matt Stroud joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in 2016 as a criminal justice researcher and writer. Prior to joining the ACLU, Matt held staff reporting positions with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News, and has written for publications including Esquire, The Intercept, Politico, The Atlantic, and The Nation, as well as newspapers and magazines throughout Pennsylvania.