La. set to expand hate-crimes laws to include police

Megan Trimble
Associated Press

Baton Rouge, La. – — 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.

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.