MANHATTAN (CN) — On the fourth day of anti-policing protests at New York City Hall, a Staten Island legislator proposed a “Blue Lives Matter” bill that would turn attacks on police officers into hate crimes in New York.
Recently passed in Louisiana and proposed in several other states, “Blue Lives Matter” legislation describe police and firefighters as protected classes — right along with race, religion, gender, and sexuality — for the purpose of hate-crime prosecution.
In New York and most other states, harsher penalties already exist for crimes against police officers than those against civilians.
This has made some critics suspect that the bills are less about protecting police officers than provoking Black Lives Matter protesters by siding with the men and women in blue.
In New York, the racial overtones of the bill have been heightened by the legislator behind it.
Assemblyman Ron Castorina, a Republican from Staten Island, made headlines in June for his racially charged comments comparing abortion to “African-American genocide.”
Castorina insisted in a statement that his goal with the legislation is to protect police.
“Protecting the men and women that risk their lives protecting the public every single day is a paramount concern for me as an elected official,” the assemblyman said in a statement. “The Blue Lives Matter bill will provide our police officers with greater protection against assault because of the heightened penalties associated with this legislation.”
The Anti-Defamation League, on the other hand, has called such laws unnecessary and counterproductive, as hate crimes are more difficult to prosecute because they require prosecutors to prove intent.
Evan Bernstein, the league’s regional director for New York, emphasized that the organization supports efforts to protect police officers.
“Having said that, we believe that adding law enforcement to existing hate crime laws would actually make it harder to prosecute someone who kills or assaults an officer,” he said. “We believe this proposed legislation is harmful to law enforcement and will make it more difficult to prosecute those who seek to harm officers.”
Meanwhile, just outside New York’s City Hall, protesters have taken over a stretch of a park and renamed it Abolition Square — calling to disband the police and eliminate prisons.
Activists there, predictably, want the institution of policing to matter far less in society.
Chino May, a 34-year-old graduate student of anthropology, called it “ridiculous and kind of nefarious” to liken police to a racial group.
“I mean, it’s a job,” he said. “Next, there will be a hate-crime bill for gardeners or something, or plumbers.”
Asked what he felt about the protest’s underlying theme of police abolition, May called it more of a “visionary” call for a radically restructured society than a statement of purpose.
“Obviously, to get rid of police, there couldn’t be such a dramatic gap between the rich and poor,” he said. “To get rid of police, you’d have to have housing for everybody because you need police to evict somebody. So, it sort of includes implicitly all that kind of stuff, but I think if all it leads to is a dramatic downgrading of the police presence in daily life in the United States, then that’s good.”
The activists have set up their Occupy Wall Street-style encampment indefinitely.
Nabil Hassein, a 27-year-old programmer from Crown Heights, helped organize the demonstration with the group Millions March.
He said that police already have special protections — for their own crimes.
“The NYPD have killed about 200 people in the last 15 years, not a single one of them has spent a single day in jail,” he said.
A New York Daily News investigation shows his estimate is close.
Of the 179 fatalities involving on-duty officers in the past 15 years, only three cases led to indictments. Only one officer has been convicted, for the negligent homicide of West African immigrant Ousmane Zongo in 2005, the tabloid reported on Dec. 8, 2014.
Little has changed since then, with only one new conviction against a police officer for killing a civilian: against NYPD rookie Peter Liang, who shot an unarmed Akai Gurley to death in a public housing stairwell in Brooklyn.
Even in this case, Liang never faced prison time, and insisted the shooting was a tragic accident. The District Attorney for Kings County agreed and recommended leniency, and judge downgraded Liang’s top offense and gave him a probation sentence.
Police killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and New York have made some police feel under attack, and Sgt. Joe Imperatrice, who calls himself the founder of Blue Lives Matter, invoked the killings of NYPD detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in his statement.
“Today, our law officials are standing up and making a change not only for our police officers but also our communities and their citizens,” he said.
In Baton Rouge and Dallas, the perpetrators of the police shootings were killed on the scene, and the man who shot the NYPD detectives committed suicide shortly after his attack.
Hassein said, on the other hand, that police killings of civilians far outnumber these cases and mostly go unprosecuted.
This was true even in the case of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was taped placing Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, he noted.
The incident happened in the shadow of the Staten Island Ferry and ignited what is now known as the Movement for Black Lives.
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