Federal and State Bills Feed Dangerous Myth of a “War on Police”

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The House passed a bipartisan bill in May to create new penalties for assaulting the police. If it becomes law, the Protect and Serve Act of 2018would make it a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for “knowingly caus[ing] serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer, or attempts to do so.”

With this vote both major parties breathe life into the misguided belief that police are under attack, and that protesters or criticism of aggressive policing put police officers’ lives in danger.  This so-called “War on Police”, they say, has turned police officers in to targets in need of additional layers of legal protection to keep them safe.

It’s the same argument behind the rash of “Blue Lives Matter” bills that have popped up in state legislatures across the country even as calls for police accountability continue to grow louder.  While most of the state-level bills have stalled or been defeated, Louisianaand Kentucky passed laws that distort the intent behind the federal hate crime statute and expand the government’s power to punish those charged with crimes involving police officers.

Just like the recent wave of bills intended to restrict protestand silence activists, these measures ratchet up the risks for Americans who cross paths with police officers while exercising their First Amendment rights. For instance, if a police officer grabs a protester’s arm during a demonstration and that person makes a movement the officer considers aggressive, a minor trespassing or disturbing the peace charge could be considered assault and a hate crime.  The new laws will also open the door for judges to increasingly deny parole or bond, another way to suppress political expression.

“[T]he Protect and Serve Act is similar to other “Blue Lives Matter” type bills that create new criminal offenses and penalty enhancements for crimes against police,” warns a letter to Congresssigned by Defending Rights and Dissent and a broad coalition of human rights and faith-based organizations. “Rather than focusing on policies that address issues of police excessive force, biased policing, and other police practices…the Protect and Serve Act’s aim is to further criminalize.”

Since the 2014 shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer, there has been heightened national attention to issues of police using excessive force.  At the same time, cell phone and body worn cameras capturing incidences of police shooting or aggressionagainst unarmed civilians have shown that problems are not limited to one department, region or state.  But lawmakers have taken little action to address these concerns, not wanting to appear as if they don’t support police.

No one should deny that law enforcement can be a dangerous job and that many police officers risk their lives as part of their duties.  But these bills do not make policing safer and the War on Police rhetoric antagonizes and discredits efforts for police accountability by presenting Americans with a false choice between protecting police officers and the people they swear to serve and protect.

The Senate is now considering a similar bill that would go even further than the House’s version, making law enforcement officers a “protected class” and categorizing violence against them as a “hate crime.”  This chimerical legislation does little to address the real issues and is just more window dressing for lawmakers more interesting in keeping political opponents at bay in November rather than doing the hard work of keeping all Americans safe.