The “blue lives matter” movement has made its way to Rhode Island. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear two bills on the subject. One would reinstate the death penalty for the murder of a police officer “by ambush.” The second would enhance penalties for crimes committed against police officers by making them “hate crimes.”
These bills aren’t necessary and won’t make police work any safer. There are already enhanced state penalties for assaulting police officers, and even the consideration of reinstating the death penalty -- for any reason -- is a large step backwards in sane criminal justice policy.
As capital punishment becomes more and more of an anachronism across the country, it is particularly shameful to see an effort to revive it in Rhode Island. It tarnishes our proud status as the second state in the country to abolish the death penalty in 1852 (after hanging a person whom many people believe was not guilty of the crime), and ignores all the evidence that it is discriminatory, fiscally irresponsible and lacks any deterrent value.
While the ACLU has been wary of “hate crime” statues for many reasons, treating crimes against police officers as hate crimes – the same as criminal offenses aimed directly at African-Americans or members of the LGBTQ community – devalues the decades-long discrimination that truly marginalized communities have faced, including lynchings and prison sentences just for the “crime” of being who they are.
Police work is dangerous and stressful. But there is no “war on police” in this state or country, and police officers are valued public servants, not members of a minority group that have been victims of decades of deep-rooted discrimination.
Rather than divisively trying to address a non-existent problem, Rhode Island legislators need to focus on the very real and pressing problems of mass incarceration, bias-based policing, and barriers that exist that prevent holding some police accountable for abuse of their authority, particularly in poor communities.
Building partnerships and trust between police and communities is essential. Bills like these detract from those efforts and should be summarily rejected.