‘Cop’ Is Not a Protected Identity

The Protect and Serve Act would serve to further criminalize already overpoliced communities.

[Photo: A group of cops with masks gather near a counter-protest]
Violence against cops isn’t destabilizing communities. If anything, it’s violence perpetrated by cops that is destabilizing communities of color. David Ryder/Getty Images

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Being a cop is not that dangerous of a job.

It’s safer, statistically speaking, than being a cab driver. It’s a hell of a lot safer than being in the logging or fishing industry—seems like people in those industries are dropping like flies on the regular. In fact, being a cop doesn’t even rank in the top ten of the deadliest professions. Hell, people who collect recyclables are more likely to be killed on the job than a cop.

But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from turning a couple of isolated, albeit awful, incidents into a national crisis—providing even more law-and-order arrows in the Trump administration’s already dangerous quiver.

It is tragic that those cops in Dallas and in Baton Rouge lost their lives, and I feel for their families. I really do. But there is no war on cops. Cops in the United States are not under siege. There are no terrorist groups dedicated to killing cops, although many of Black Lives Matter’s detractors would have you believe that is exactly what the organization is all about. (It isn’t.) There are no roving gangs of people looking to kill cops. But the delusion is bearing fruit. Two versions of a bill—a Senate and House version—were introduced in U.S. Congress this week that would designate violence against police as a hate crime. The so-called Protect and Serve Act would also deem police officers a protected class.

The act is modeled after federal hate crime legislation and would make it a hate crime “to knowingly cause bodily injury to any person, or attempts to do so, because of the actual or perceived status of the person as a law enforcement officer.” It calls for stiffer penalties, including up to life in prison if the crime involves kidnapping or the attempt to kidnap or kill a law enforcement officer.

One of the sponsors of the bill in the Senate, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said in a statement that the law is intended to make it clear that violent ambushes will not be tolerated and that criminals will not escape justice when they target and assault cops.

But this law is a solution looking for a problem.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund crafted a letter that makes the point:

Federal law already has extremely strong penalties for people who commit crimes against law enforcement officers and other public officials. For example, federal laws impose a life sentence or death penalty on persons convicted of first-degree murder of federal employees or officers, killing state and local law enforcement officers or other employees assisting with federal investigations, and killing officers of the U.S. courts. All fifty states have laws that enhance penalties for people who commit offenses against law enforcement officers, including for homicide and assault.

The letter goes on to note that the enactment of hate crime legislation “should be based on evidence demonstrating a need for greater protection.” The Civil Rights Act of 1968 contains a hate crime provision that was a direct response to the attacks on Black people as they engaged in federally protected activities like voting or applying for jobs. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Act Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was enacted in response to the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard because he was gay and the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. because he was Black. And the record leading up to the passage of that act was filled with hate-based attacks on the basis of protected identity.

“Cop” is not a protected identity.

According to George Washington University School of Law Professor Paul Butler in a 2012 interview with NPR, hate crime laws “started as a response to groups like the Klan and other kinds of race-based terrorist organizations.”

“The sense was that these groups, when they committed acts of violence were destabilizing communities and people in a way that was different from other kinds of crime, and so the sense was maybe if there were enhanced penalties if you acted motivated by race or gender or sexual orientation, maybe the punishment would better reflect the crime,” Butler added.

Violence against cops isn’t destabilizing communities. If anything, it’s violence perpetrated by cops that is destabilizing communities of color.

And the notion that police officers are subject to the kind of targeted violence that, say, transgender people are, or that Muslims are, is frankly offensive. Being a police officer is, after all, a profession; cops are not violently targeted for their identities the way marginalized people are.

But the proposed act treats them as if they are.

The proposed law seems like a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement—which the Blue Lives Matter crowd has foolishly contended is an anti-police movement—and an effort to avoid accountability for the acts of police brutality meted out against Black people.

It is true that cops put their lives on the line in a way that a cab driver or a logger arguably does not. When police go out on the job, they can expect that they may get shot or shot at. No one is trying to shoot and kill fishermen, loggers, or cab drivers. The possibility of ending up dead is a risk that cops—like FBI agents or Secret Service agents—take on when they decide to become cops. Few people go into a manufacturing plant musing, “Today might be the day that I die.” And for people married to cops, the fear that their partner won’t come home is real. I get it.

But that fear can lead to deadly consequences for people of color. If we allow those fears to proliferate by, for example, suggesting that there is a war on cops, then there’s a likelihood that some cops will approach their jobs as if they are at war with the communities they believe are laying siege to them. And those communities are communities of color. So, the “war on cops” morphs from a trope without basis to a psychological fear cops carry with them on the job. Combine that fear with the inherent fear of Black people propagated by white supremacy, and you end up with more Black people killed at the hands of the state. (Just look at the recent uptick in stories about white people calling the police on Black people for barbecuinggolfing, packing up after a stay in an Airbnb, napping, going to Starbucks, shopping at Nordstrom, and, frankly, just existing.)

The fact of the matter is, it’s safer to be a cop than a Black person in this country. If you’re a Black cop, you’re going to be subject to the same sort of racial profiling as the rest of us. And elevating violence against police officers to the level of a hate crime puts police on equal footing with those marginalized communities—even though police themselves are often perpetrators of state violence against marginalized communities, violence that often goes unpunished.

The response to already overpoliced communities is not to criminalize them further.

This bill is a farce. And it should be treated as such.