Erika D. Smith

Blue lives do matter, but not this way

Sacramento police investigate outside the Capitol Casino on North 16th Street after an officer-involved shooting in November. A bystander was killed during a gunfight between an officer and a suspect.
Sacramento police investigate outside the Capitol Casino on North 16th Street after an officer-involved shooting in November. A bystander was killed during a gunfight between an officer and a suspect.

It’s a rare day when California’s powerful law enforcement groups lose a political battle at the Capitol. It’s a rarer day still when the Legislature, prone to siding with police, defers to the concerns of people who worry about officers having too much power.

But sometimes a bill is just too much. And, last week, one authored by Assemblyman Jay Obernolte that would’ve elevated crimes against police officers to hate crime status proved to be just that.

Just imagine. In addition to the hefty penalties that already apply to people stupid and cruel enough to try to hurt – much less kill – a cop, they also could have been charged with a hate crime under Assembly Bill 2.

That the legislation – part of a wave so-called Blue Lives Matter bills sweeping the nation – was introduced at a time of rising hate crimes against Muslims, Jews and transgender Americans makes it all the more insulting. Someone’s paid profession is not the same as someone’s identity.

Already police in California have some of the most restrictive standards in the nation for withholding disciplinary records from the public’s prying eyes, making it almost impossible to spot a troubled officer before it’s too late and cities must spend millions of tax dollars to settle lawsuits. Despite that, legislation to require officers to wear body cameras and release the footage under strict guidelines has been swatted down repeatedly in recent years.

And so, Obernolte, a Republican from Big Bear Lake, addressed the Assembly Public Safety Committee last Tuesday, thinking he actually might be able gain enough votes to advance AB 2.

He was backed by the usual suspects, including the California Peace Officers Association. But the committee chair, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, shut him down – right after he shut down some noisy protesters, shouting about Black Lives Matter, at the back of the room.

“This bill isn’t tailored to that 1 percent for which these young people are screaming out in the hall about,” Jones-Sawyer said. “That 1 percent that don’t do you justice. That have done some things that have caused that anger in the community. And that anger is real. It’s visceral. But I don’t think it rises to where it becomes a hate crime.”

He went on, laying out a decidedly rational argument.

“I can’t change the fact that I’m African American,” Jones-Sawyer said. “You can change the fact that you’re blue. You’re not born blue. I’m born black. At the end of the day, people who hate me because of my color hate me whether I’m president of the United States or I’m law enforcement. They just hate me.”

Obernolte’s bill didn’t win the committee’s approval, thankfully. But its very existence is yet another reminder of what we’re in for as the administration of President Donald Trump fans the reactionary flames of a supposed war on cops.

Just last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a room of law enforcement officials in Virginia that “in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police,” officers in many cities are afraid to do their jobs.

So it’s not surprising that Obernolte wasn’t alone in introducing a Blue Lives Matter bill.

This year, lawmakers in more than a dozen states, from Maryland to Washington, have introduced similar legislation, according to The Huffington Post. Several states have multiple versions working their way through statehouses. Mississippi legislators, for example, filed 10.

Compare that to 2016, the year police officers were ambushed in both Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., but only about 15 Blue Lives Matter bills were introduced across the country, according to Tribune Media.

What’s more, until recently, most of these bills have suffered the same quick fate as AB 2. But in recent weeks, I’ve watched with a sense of incredulity as some of this legislation has gained bipartisan traction, passing committees and even making it to the desks of governors.

Louisiana became the first state last year to actually enact such legislation. And last month, the Kentucky House of Representatives sent a bill to Gov. Matt Bevin; he has yet to sign it.

Apart from the constant fearmongering from the Trump administration, it’s not hard to understand why law enforcement groups are pushing these bills. Frequently cited are sobering statistics from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which found that 135 police officers died last year – more than anytime in the past five years and a 56 percent spike over 2015.

Of the 64 who were fatally shot, 21 were killed in ambushes often fueled by rage in communities of color. It’s a problem. It’s the kind of thing that would make anyone wary of putting on a uniform and driving around town in a marked police cruiser. Not a week goes by that I don’t worry about my best friend doing this in Ohio.

In California, this year has already proved to be a dangerous one for law enforcement.

Last month, prosecutors say Armani Lee, 28, opened fire on Sacramento police and a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy on Del Paso Boulevard. A few days later, Officer Keith Boyer, 53, was killed in Whittier while responding to a car crash. Police say the driver, Christopher Michael Mejia, a felon suspected in another murder, pulled out a gun and started firing. Bullets hit Boyer and another officer, Patrick Hazell.

Blue Lives Matter bills are “about sending a message that this is not acceptable,” Obernolte said.

But whether that would work is debatable, given how many sentencing enhancements are already on the books for people who attack police. Mejia, for example, faces murder and attempted murder charges, carjacking and possession of a firearm by a felon, murder to escape arrest, and the special circumstance of murder of a police officer, which is written into California’s death penalty statute.

Indeed, ambushing a police officer is about the dumbest thing anyone who values his life or freedom can do. But people do it anyway.

A fringe of people truly do hate the police. It’s a hate based in the inconvenient reality of a criminal justice system that, systemically, is too often unfair to people of color. Threatening people with harsh sentences for hate crimes won’t change that. Nor will this state-by-state strategy to paint police as victims on par with someone who faces discrimination daily just for being alive.

At the end of the day, being a cop is a job. A person can take off a uniform and no longer be a target. Like Jones-Sawyer, I can’t stop being black.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith