Editor’s Note: Arjun Singh Sethi is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, where he teaches courses on policing, law enforcement abuse, and counterterrorism. His work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Arjun Sethi: Shooting death in Baton Rouge spotlights Louisiana's recent "blue lives matter" law
Hate crime designation should be reserved for those who are dangerously marginalized, he says
The war in our communities continues. Tuesday night, 37 year old Alton Sterling was shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is the latest of many black and brown Americans who have died at the hands of police playing the role of judge, jury and executioner.
Although protesters have taken to the streets to demand accountability, they will likely be disappointed, and like other demonstrators in places like Ferguson or Baltimore, dismissed as racist or causing a surge in violence. Officers and lawmakers will, as they have in the past, shun “black lives matter” to embrace “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter” instead.
This incident in Baton Rouge, about which details are still unfolding, is additionally significant because Louisiana, in particular, has made it clear that it’s more interested in protecting police officers than vulnerable minority communities. In May, the governor signed a new law that makes assaulting a police officer a hate crime. Harming a police officer is thus no different from harming a member of a minority community. Other states have celebrated the law and will soon follow Louisiana’s example because they believe cops are under siege. But as we saw last night in Baton Rouge, the real war is against minority communities, not police officers.
How this law misreads ‘message crimes’
Hate crime laws should generally extend only to vulnerable Americans who are targeted on the basis of their personal identity. Making police officers a protected class is just the latest effort to avoid police accountability and obscures the violence that minority communities continue to endure at the hands of police and the broader American public.
Hate crime laws are designed to protect minority communities who are targeted because of a personal characteristic, such as race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Historically, these communities have been vulnerable to violence and therefore need heightened protection under the law.
These laws are also necessary because hate crimes are different from other crimes. They would never occur absent the victim’s personal identity. Attacking a gay club, vandalizing a mosque, confiscating a disabled person’s wheelchair are “message crimes.” They’re meant to intimidate and inflame and lead to lasting trauma for the victims and their communities.
Now think about violence against police officers. Unlike minority communities, police officers are not particularly susceptible to hate violence. Instead they’re cloaked in immense power. U.S. police officers are among the most well-armed and trained in the world, and often have ready access to high-grade military equipment used abroad. They’re also taught to never hesitate, which is why they’re afforded so much discretion under the law and so rarely indicted by the courts. The evidence confirms their near-invulnerability. FBI data shows that violence against police is rapidly declining and that 2015 was a particularly safe year for law enforcement.
Nor is assaulting a police officer a message crime. Officers assume the risk of violence when they join the service and are trained to respond to violence with lethal force. Consider how police officers respond to targeted violence versus minority communities. Law enforcement exercises unflinching force and authority when one of its own is under threat; minority communities often recoil and feel isolated.
There’s likewise little precedent for making an occupation a protected class under a hate crime statute. If we add police officers, then why not also add lawyers, doctors, and all public servants? States that wish to provide greater protection to their officers can always promulgate independent laws that enhance the criminal penalties for assaulting an officer. Many states already have such laws on the books, including Louisiana, which makes its new law all the more extraneous.
In search of police accountability
It’s clear that Louisiana and the states that will soon follow in its footsteps believe there’s a war on cops in America. FBI Director James Comey has championed this perspective and decried the “YouTube world,” “mobile phone cameras,” and “viral videos”; lamented the “chill wind blowing through law enforcement”; and repeatedly emphasized that “all lives matter.”
Citizens who seek police accountability aren’t waging a war on cops, though; they’re seeking justice.
Social media, smartphones and the like have revolutionized all manners of social encounter, not just police-civilian ones. These technologies are an important check on police abuse, and have helped spur a national conversation on police overreach and lethal force, including President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing. We need more police accountability, not less. Consider that the FBI still doesn’t have a fully transparent and reliable mechanism for collecting and disseminating the total number of civilians killed by police, information that every American has the right to know.
Similarly, while all lives do matter, colorblindness has proven disastrous for African-Americans. Our collective refusal to pay attention to race and bias has blinded us to the inequities that African-Americans face in almost every facet of American life, including employment, housing, public education, and police violence. “Black Lives Matter” is in part an effort to abandon colorblindness and explicitly inject race into American public discourse.
In fact, Black Lives Matter activists may find themselves on the receiving end of a particularly perverse application of the new Louisiana law. A protester who raises his elbows when confronted by a cop could be charged with a hate crime and assault. Those who protest at a police station could be charged with a hate crime and trespass.
In contrast to police officers, minority communities, in particular transgender, black and brown Americans, remain acutely vulnerable to violence in its many forms. In 2015, 1,134 people lost their lives at the hands of police, with young black men nine times more likely to be killed than other Americans. African-Americans are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and prosecuted than their white counterparts, and face more severe penalties as well. Countless more were the victims of police brutality or militarization, like we saw in Ferguson.
It’s not just police. There are 892 hate groups nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Hate crimes against transgender Americans tripled between 2013 to 2014 and continue to rise. Islamophobia is higher now than after 9/11 and in the months after the San Bernardino tragedy, Sikh and Muslim Americans experienced a 200% and 300% uptick in hate incidents. A similar increase is likely in the wake of the Orlando tragedy and other recent acts of violence.
Hate is efflorescing in this country, but it’s directed at minority communities, not police officers. Our hate crime laws should reflect this painful reality – not a mythical war on cops.
Arjun Singh Sethi is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, where he teaches courses on policing, law enforcement abuse, and counterterrorism. His work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.