Police officers, firefighters and other first responders may become members of a protected class under the Louisiana hate crimes bill according to a new statute awaiting the governor's signature.
House Bill 953 passed both chambers of the Louisiana state legislature, receiving final approval in the state Senate on Tuesday. But for former East Baton Rouge parish attorney, the new bill is unnecessary and redundant.
"As a former prosecutor I know for a fact that battery of a police officer is already covered by other laws here in Louisiana," Terrel Kent told NBCBLK. "To include essential peace officers, sheriffs, law enforcement officials or first responders is a slap in the face to protected classes."
Protected classes are categories of individuals that cannot be targets for discrimination. Race, age, gender, color, religion, national origin, ability, and sexual orientation are all protected classes. Under Louisiana's current hate crime law, a person convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime can be sentenced to prison for up to six months and given a $500 penalty. If convicted of a felony, they can receive an additional five years and fines up to $5,000.
"This statute will have the same effect as the Theft of Crawfish bill," Kent continued. "For years, theft of crawfish had its own stand-alone statute, but the penalties absolutely mirrored the other general theft statutes. In recent years the legislature finally came to its senses and said this is redundant because we already have theft of goods and general misdemeanor theft."
Governor John Bel Edwards, in a statement released to NBCBLK, says he will sign it. "As the son and brother of a sheriff, I have the greatest respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect our communities, state and nation. The members of the law enforcement community deserve these protections, and I look forward to signing this bill into law."
Opponents of the legislation, nicknamed the "Blue Lives Matter bill," are concerned at the precedence it could create. Mwende "FreeQuency" Katwiwa worries it calls to mind the adage, "As the south goes, so goes the nation."
"This bill is an attempt to counter the very vocal, visible and effective tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement and paint the police in a more sympathetic public light when in reality, they are increasingly more violent and violence against them is actually decreasing," Katwiwa, a BYP100 New Orleans chapter member, told NBCBLK via email.
Despite speculation that anti-cop sentiment has fueled an increase in police shootings, last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation released data showing 2015 to be one of the safest years for U.S. law enforcement.
The FBI found that 41 police officers were killed in the line of duty, which is down from 51 in 2014. And of those "intentionally killed in the U.S.," all but three were killed by a gunshot from a suspect - three were "deliberately struck by a vehicle."
"The fact of the matter is, the numbers don't match the legislation," Katwiwa said.
For Kathryn Sheely, a 10-year public defender in Louisiana, not only is HB953 unnecessary but SO IS state-level hate crime legislation across the board.
"I don't believe that hate crimes legislation works, because we never know what's going on in someone's head when they commit a crime. Hate crime legislation is sold as something to punish people motivated by hate and prejudice, but the legal system is really bad at discovering people's motives," Sheely told NBCBLK via email. "What ends up happening is that crimes which society does not like, which would be punished severely anyway, are assumed to be motivated by hate and prejudice and therefore get a new label with additional punishment."
Sheely can imagine ways in which HB953 could potentially have negative repercussions for protesters including those from the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Any protest in a police station could be criminal trespass, but now it could also be a hate crime. Beyond group protest, if someone pushes away from a police officer during an arrest, she could be charged not only with a battery and battery against a police officer, she could now be charged with a hate crime," Sheely said. "Additional charges mean higher bail, more potential jail time, and more expensive attorney fees."
Katwiwa said the lack of opposition the bill faced in the legislature is a clear indication of the political landscape in Louisiana. As an organizer, she has focused her energy on just getting the word out: they have already flooded the Governor's office with calls demanding he oppose the bill.
"But at the end of the day, he will do what he will, and we will either celebrate or mobilize," Katwiwa said.