To little fanfare, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill on Wednesday to create a new penalty for assaulting law enforcement officials. If it becomes law, the Protect and Serve Act of 2018 would make it a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for “knowingly caus[ing] serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer, or attempts to do so.”
Similar so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bills have been snaking their way through state legislatures across the country over the past two years as citizens have continued to rise up and demand an end to police brutality. In 2016, Louisiana became the first state in the country to make police officers a class of citizen protected under hate crime law. (The bill was signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.)
Civil rights groups have denounced the Protect and Serve Act. In a Tuesday letter to members of Congress, more than two dozen groups, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the bill “superfluous,” and said it would negatively impact law enforcements’ relationships with the communities they are supposed to serve:
First, police already have substantial protections under federal and state law, rendering this bill superfluous. Second, this bill signals that there is a “war on police,” which is not only untrue, but an unhelpful and dangerous narrative to uplift. And finally, bills similar to Protect and Serve that have been introduced in states around the country—so called “Blue Lives Matter” bills—appear to be a political response to the growing national movement for police accountability in the face of continued killings and assaults of unarmed African Americans; therefore, this bill is divisive and will have a negative impact on the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
As Jonathan Cohn, a Boston-based editor and progressive activist, rightly pointed out, this bill—and others like it—is “a solution in search of a problem”: police officers already enjoy more protections than most citizens. And as others have noted, categorizing police officers as a group akin to oppressed minority groups is brutally ironic, given how many people of color live in fear of potentially deadly encounters with law enforcement.
So it’s a bit jarring to see that the majority of House Democrats, including some of the chambers’ more progressive members, lined up to support the bill (a total of 162 Democratic members backed the bill, while just 24 voted against the measure). Representative Keith Ellison, who represents Minnesota and has come to be affiliated with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, voted for the bill, as did Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, and Jan Schakowsky, of Illinois. You can read the full roll call of the vote here.
Voting in favor of this bill could be read as an effort by the Democrats to pre-empt more bad-faith attacks from Republicans ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. You can write the fear-mongering attack ads yourself: “DEMOCRATS VOTE TO SUPPORT COP KILLERS.” Still, the message this vote sends to Democrats’ constituents—and especially their black constituents—is that they are willing to put a thumb on the scale for the police.
Splinter has reached out to the offices of Ellison, Grijalva, and Schakowsky for comment on why they supported the bill and will update this post if we hear back.