Louisiana has become the first state to expand its hate-crime protections to include police, firefighters, and emergency workers.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) of Louisiana, who comes from a family that includes four generations of law enforcement officers, signed the bill that already had broad support at the state's capitol into law Thursday.
The bill, is the first of a number of controversial so-called "Blue Lives Matter" bills to pass – five more remain stalled in other states and Congress is considering one at the federal level.
"Coming from a family of law enforcement officers, I have great respect for the work that they do and the risks they take to ensure our safety," Governor Edwards said.
The recently monikered Blue Lives Matter movement is a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a nationwide protest movement that grew out of the protests to the high-profile deaths of black people such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of police. The movement was paralleled by a spike in high-profile ambush killings of police.
The first rumblings of Blue Lives Matter came in January of 2015 when the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) requested that hate-crime protections be extended beyond attacks motivated by skin color to attacks based on uniform color, too.
Under the new Louisiana law prosecutors can now seek stronger penalties when first responders are intentionally targeted because of their professions. That stretches beyond the essential characteristics that have characterized hate-crime law protections, such as a victim's race, religion, or gender.
People convicted of felony hate crimes in Louisiana face an additional five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. Penalties increase by $500 or up to six months in prison in misdemeanor cases.
The decision to extend hate-crimes protections to individuals based on their chosen occupation is controversial. Supporters of the law see it as a strong response to protect those who serve the community in a public capacity that has led them to become the targets of sometimes vengeful attacks.
Indeed, state Republican Rep. Lance Harris said he introduced the bill to protect first responders after a number of perceived targeted attacks.
Critics, however, argue that police already have extra protections and under the law. This complicates the relationship between police and the community, they say. According to FBI data, Louisiana law enforcement already reports hate crimes at a lower rate than other states of similar sizes. And for some Black Live Matter activists, the law feels like a direct attack.
"This law is in response to the work of Black Lives Matter. They're targeting young black people who are standing up and demanding more from our government," said Latoya Lewis, co-chair of the New Orleans chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 told the Associated Press.
The Anti-Defamation League and minority advocacy groups had called for a veto, saying the law could dilute the importance of hate-crime laws at a time when they already feel under-protected. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association abstained from taking a position on the measure, but some prosecutors said they do not expect it to change their approach.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.