Could the proposed 'Back the Blue Act' deter assaults on law enforcement?

A new bill introduced by Republican lawmakers aims to reduce targeted attacks on police officers by establishing mandatory minimum sentences, but some say the act is unlikely to have an effect.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Police officers pay their respects ahead of the funeral for Officer Lorne Ahrens in Plano, Texas on Wednesday.

As activists, politicians, and law enforcement officials across the country work to mend community-police relations following a string of police-related deaths last week, conservative lawmakers from Texas have proposed one possible solution: the "Back the Blue Act." 

The bill, introduced Wednesday in response to the fatal shooting of five officers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas last Thursday, aims to reduce targeted attacks on law enforcement by imposing strict mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, however, analysts seem to agree that the risks of the bill likely outweigh any potential reward. 

"The Back the Blue Act sends a clear message that our criminal justice system simply will not tolerate those who viciously and deliberately target our law enforcement," said Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R) Texas, who introduced the bill along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Sen. Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina, in a statement.

The legislation would make killing a federal judge, federal law enforcement officer, or "federally funded public safety officer" punishable by a minimum of 30 years in prison. Unsuccessful attempts to kill would carry a 10-year minimum, and assault of an officer resulting in any sort of "bodily injury" a 2-year minimum, "no matter how temporary" the injury. 

The bill has been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates, who say that establishing mandatory minimum sentences for assaulting an officer could result in thousands more people being incarcerated. Assaulting a federal officer is already a federal crime punishable by up to either eight or 20 years in prison, depending on whether a weapon or injury is involved, however, only 1,410 cases were reported in 2014, and several hundred people convicted.

The Back the Blue Act's definition of a "federally funded State or local law enforcement officer" includes any police officers, jailers, and probation or parole officers who work in an agency that "receives Federal financial assistance." As the government provides state and local police forces with billions of dollars per year, many of the 48,000 total officers who reported being assaulted in 2014 could fall under this umbrella. 13,654 of those officers reportedly sustained injuries. 

"You could see why a senator from Texas would feel inspired to do something, but it's very clear now mandatory minimums are not the way to go," Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, told the U.S. News & World Report.

"These assault pieces are very vague and could potentially bring in thousands of more people who are in altercation with a police officer and give them a little scratch on their arm," she continued. "We want everyone to go peacefully under arrest, but we know that doesn't happen. It's naturally a complicated situation." 

While law enforcement officers are undeniably killed and assaulted in the line of duty, the idea that officers face a greater risk today than in decades past is a common misconception, says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. 

"I think officers and many members of the public really believe, really perceive that officers are more endangered now than they have been historically," Mr. Stoughton tells The Christian Science Monitor. However, he says, "historical data shows that officers are increasingly safe, even in light of the intense public scrutiny that has been put on policing since Ferguson in the summer of 2014."

Statistics comparing the number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2013 (27) to the number of officers killed in 2014 and 2015 (51 and 46 respectively) caused many to assume that the uptick signaled a drastic increase in the danger facing law enforcement. A survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in September 2015 found that 58 percent of Americans said there is a war on police, and 60 percent believed politicians' comments criticizing law enforcements made it more dangerous for officers to do their jobs.

But in fact, Stoughton says, "looking long term, what you see is a steady decrease in the number of officers who are feloniously killed in the line of duty since the 1970s," when more than 130 officers were killed in a year. The number of felonious assaults on officers has followed a similar trend. 

Legislation similar to the Back the Blue Act, such as the "Blue Lives Matter" law enacted in Louisiana in May, which made targeting an officer a hate crime, has come under fire from Black Lives Matter activists, who say that lawmakers' focus on the alleged increase in targeted attacks on officers detracts from issues of racially biased policing. 

"There are not very many people hunting down cops," writes Natasha Lennard for Rolling Stone following the shooting in Dallas. "Cops' lives are already valorized; it costs everything to take one. For a cop to take a black life, in criminal-justice currency, costs nothing at all." 

While observers on the other side of the fence may not agree with Ms. Lennard's ideology, some also doubt the effectiveness of such laws in repairing police-community relations. 

Heather Mac Donald, fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe," says that while she is "not necessarily opposed to" the bill, she doesn't believe it will significantly deter violence toward law enforcement. 

"I just think it’s ... easy for legislators to pass legislation and they feel like they’re accomplishing something, which they may or may not be," says Ms. Mac Donald in a Monitor interview. She would rather see members of Congress "hold hearings to get the truth out about policing and about crime in the inner city." 

"What would be far more important, if congressional and senate legislators want to push back against this hate-filled and dangerous atmosphere in which officers operate today, is to rebut the lies of the Black Lives Matter movement and articulate the truth, that there is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than the police," she says.

In fact, she adds, it's possible that the proposed law could do more harm than good if it is portrayed by the media as an attack on peaceful protest, which could "further inflame the divisions on the street today." 

Stoughton is equally skeptical that the law would successfully reduce the number of attacks on law enforcement, as assaulting or killing an officer is already harshly punished in every state. 

For those convicted of murdering an officer, he says, a typical sentence is either the death penalty or life in prison, "so I'm not really sure what establishing a mandatory minimum of 30 years is going to do, unless you really want to get them into the federal system for some reason."

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