Police are adding a new wrinkle to the debate about their proper role in society: They now want to be a protected class. We debate whether it’s needed or a political stunt.
Society’s having a debate right now on the proper role of the police. Should they effectively be a paramilitary force, keeping law and order? Or de-escalate and partner more with communities rather than overseeing them?
Into this heated topic, the police have a new request: They want to be a protected class.
Two bills, known as “blue lives matter” legislation, were introduced Thursday in the Legislature in Olympia. The bills would add the job of police officer to the classes of people specially protected from bias and discrimination, which is typically done on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and the like.
It would be the first time in this state an occupation was up for “hate crimes” anti-bias protection.
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The bills were introduced due to a sense that animosity toward police has left them as sitting ducks and needing more protection.
State Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, is the only Democrat to sign on to the House version of the bill, HB 1398 (it has 11 Republican sponsors). For 31 years he was a state trooper, and he is also one of only two African Americans in the Legislature. So he comes at the issues of minority protections and the police from a unique perspective.
“I know that hate-crime laws are intended for the marginalized and for victims of discrimination, but I kind of think police belong in that category,” Lovick told me. “This isn’t just symbolic — there are people targeting police officers. Things are different now than when I was on patrol.”
Last year, 63 officers were killed nationally by gunfire, a third of those dying in ambush-style attacks. This is a sharp increase over 2015, when 39 officers died by gunfire. But it is below the decade’s high of 73 in 2011.
In Washington state, one officer was killed last year — Tacoma officer Jake Gutierrez, who was shot responding to a domestic incident.
But killing a police officer is already called out in the law as an especially serious crime. The hate-crimes legislation would mean people could possibly be charged with a felony for hostile or threatening criticism of a cop.
Example: Last month prosecutors charged a White Center woman with a hate crime for posting on Facebook a video of herself haranguing a Latina woman about her “Spanish privilege” and driving “like you’re in Mexico.” She also threatened to try to get the Latina woman deported.
At a recent Seattle forum on police accountability, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg gently mocked the notion that police are in any way similar to society’s most vulnerable.
People hate lawyers too, Satterberg said, but lawyers get past it “by telling lawyer jokes.” A job is not an “immutable characteristic” like race or gender, he said. Adding police to the list of protected classes would lead to more occupations clamoring for special protection, diluting the whole purpose of anti-discrimination law.
Some police critics suspect the purpose of the “blue lives matter” bill is more devious: To distract from issues about police misbehavior raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The most protected job under the law already is the job of police officer,” said Andrè Taylor, who formed Not This Time, an advocacy group, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting last year of his brother, Che Taylor, by two Seattle police officers. The group has been trying to change the state law that makes it nearly impossible to charge officers for a crime when they use deadly force.
“This is a backlash because we’re asking them for accountability,” Taylor said. “They are digging in their heels because they’re being asked to change.”
The irony of all this is that one of the unsung good-news stories around here lately has been the work of the police and its improving community relations. In Seattle, the use of force is down dramatically, while trust among the public appears to be rising. Even at the Seattle forum, which was dominated by police skeptics, people were talking not fighting.
It’d be a shame if this hard-won progress were undone now by politics.