BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana is poised to become the first state in the nation to expand its hate-crime laws to protect police, firefighters and emergency medical crews — a move that could stir the national debate over the relationship between law enforcement and minorities.
If signed by the governor, the new law would allow prosecutors to seek greater penalties against anyone convicted of intentionally targeting first responders because of their profession.
Existing hate-crime laws provide for larger fines and longer prison terms if a person is targeted because of race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or affiliation with certain organizations.
The state House unanimously supported extending the laws, and the bill gained overwhelming support in the state Senate. The measure met no objection from committees in either chamber.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat whose grandfather, father and brother have served as sheriffs, is expected to sign the bill into law this week, said his spokeswoman, Shauna Sanford.
Lawmakers in five other states have recently tried to pass similar so-called Blue Lives Matter bills, but each effort stalled, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Critics regard the laws as unnecessary and say they could weaken current hate-crimes statutes.
People convicted of assaulting police officers already face increased penalties in many states, including Louisiana. And crimes against public-safety officials are being "investigated and prosecuted vigorously under current Louisiana law," said Allison Padilla-Goodman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote the Louisiana governor asking for his veto.
Expanding the hate-crime laws may open the door to other job categories being added, and thereby dilute the laws' impact, she wrote.
She said Louisiana law-enforcement agencies underuse the current law and underreport hate crimes. FBI statistics show only six of the state's 86 departments reported any hate crimes in 2014, the most recent data available.
Nine hate crimes were reported statewide in 2014. States of comparable sizes show numbers ten times that.
Padilla-Goodman also worries that expanding the statute will further confuse police.
"So now will they think they should only report crimes against police?" she asked. "Will they be confused about the purpose of hate-crime laws?"
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the organization has not taken a position on the bill.
"As prosecutors, we face the same challenge either way," he said. "It's difficult to prove motivation in some cases, but when the facts are there, we will pursue it."
Adams' group does not collect data on how often district attorneys use the current law, he said.
The national Black Lives Matter movement spread quickly after the 2014 police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and activists now seek reforms in policing nationwide.
Louisiana's legislation was prompted by a number of high-profile attacks on police, including the killing of a suburban Houston deputy who was shot 15 times in an August 2015 ambush, according to the Republican lawmaker who proposed the bill.
"This gives more of a deterrent for people just to pick out a law officer because he's a law officer and attack him," said state Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria.
Maryland state legislator Steven Arentz, who filed a similar proposal, said he was not even familiar with the Blue Lives Matter language being used to describe the bills.
"People are getting killed just because they're cops," he said. "And they are black and white wearing the uniform."
Latoya Lewis, co-chair of the New Orleans chapter of the Black Youth Project 100, suggested the Louisiana governor's support of the bill would be a commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Supporting this bill puts the broader community on a back burner in Louisiana," she said. "This would not be a positive reaction to our cries, but only show how much power there is against the people trying to stop the harassing and murder in the streets by police."
Statistics do not support a change in law, Lewis added, saying that thousands more people were killed by police last year than officers killed in the line of duty during the same period.
While supporters of the legislation contend police are targeted because of their uniforms, Lewis said officers "are not born a certain way. They choose it, and the uniform they wear comes with a lot of protection."
Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, has proposed a federal Blue Lives Matter Act that is supported by the national Fraternal Order of Police, according to Buck spokesman Kyle Huwa. Supporters say federal legislation would protect officers in states that do not have police hate-crime laws and would help provide federal investigative resources in such cases.
Under the Louisiana measure, people convicted of felony hate crimes singling out police or other first responders would face an additional five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. In misdemeanor cases, penalties could increase by $500 or up to six months in prison.
House Bill 953: www.legis.la.gov .