Provisions from Ward’s ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bill may become law

Ward recounts budget endgame
By Jordan Bailey | Jul 12, 2017

Second-term Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham, introduced a bill, which became known as the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, that would have elevated attacks on police officers, emergency responders and firefighters from Class C to Class B crimes, punishable by 10 years in jail, and would have expanded the definition of hate crimes to include crimes committed against members of those professions.

Ward represents District 131, which includes the Waldo County towns of Prospect and Stockton Springs.

Blue Lives Matter is a media company and movement founded by law enforcement officers to counteract the negative publicity arising from the Black Lives Matter movement which highlights killings of black people by police and their lack of convictions.

The bill failed in committee, where testimony was heard opposing the expansion of hate crime sentencing laws to include first responders because crimes against first responders are not under-prosecuted.

However, provisions of Ward's bill were included in another similar bill, LD 990, which is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

LD 599 and 990 were among a wave of bills introduced in legislatures across the country after police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were ambushed and killed in Brooklyn, New York. Though bills were introduced in at least 14 states, only Louisiana and Kentucky passed legislation expanding the definition of hate crimes to include police.

“All over the United States, emergency responders are under attack,” Ward said during committee testimony. “This law will send a message, loud and clear, to those who are considering an attack on our first responders that if you target our police, sheriffs, firefighters and emergency response personnel, we're going to come down on you — hard,” he said.

“By supporting this bill as so many American citizens and other legislatures are doing, you send a clear message to these heroes that we have their backs because they have ours.”

He cited statistics that showed police officer shootings increased 67 percent in 2016 and the number of fatal police ambushes hit a 10-year high with 21 officers killed.

Different sources have slightly different figures, but do reflect increases in shootings and ambushes over 2015. Though it reports a decline in fatal police shootings overall from an average of 127 killed per year in the 1970s to an average of 57 per year in the 2000s, as calculated by The Washington Post, the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund reports 64 officers shot and killed in the U.S. in 2016, a 56-percent increase over the 41 fatally shot in 2015. According to the FBI, the number of police deaths in ambushes averaged 3.6 per year between 2006 and 2015.

The Maine Association of Police supported the bill because it holds “those who wantonly target first responders as those who represent the worst us,” Executive Director Paul Gaspar said in testimony.

Major Chris Grotton of Maine State Police and the Department of Public Safety also testified in support. “Over the past few years we are seeing an increase in planned assaults against particularly law enforcement officers based on their profession and not in a direct interaction such as an arrest,” he said. “Although we have not seen significant occurrences in Maine, there have been many examples of this tragedy across the country.”

Representatives of Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Crime Law Advisory Commission, and the ACLU of Maine opposed the bill, primarily for its “troubling expansion” of hate crime protections, which they feared would become a “laundry list” of protected classes.

“(The commission) has confidence that judges are aware of the gravity of crimes against first responders and will approach those offenses appropriately without the enactment of the section,” said John Pelletier of Crime Law Advisory Commission. He pointed out that assaults on firefighters were increased to a Class C crime by the last Legislature, and argued that increase should be given time to work before elevating it again.

The ACLU of Maine said the bill contradicts the intention of hate crime laws, which aid prosecutions for crimes that were typically under-charged. Currently Maine hate crime laws protect people who are targeted based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or mental or physical disability.

“Since the beginning of the development of modern police departments in the 1820s, there is absolutely no record that crimes against police officers or other first responders have been treated frivolously,” said Advocacy Director Oamshri Amarasingham. “And after conviction for these crimes, there is no record of sentences so low that they were insulting. That is the history required to justify a hate crime, and it simply does not exist with police anywhere in America.”

During a work session, Ward said he compromised and removed the hate crime language from the bill. Later, language from Ward’s bill elevating the class of crimes of targeted assault on first responders because their status as first responders was added to LD 990, “An Act to Prevent Violence Against Law Enforcement Officers, Emergency Medical Care Providers and Firefighters." This bill creates the crime of aggravated assault against a police officer.

LD 990 passed out of committee with a divided report. Seven members were in favor of the bill with an amendment adding language added from Ward’s bill, four were against it, and two were in favor of a separate amendment.

The bill passed the Senate 30-4, with Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, in favor.

Though the majority on the committee supported it, Ward said the leadership of the Democratic Party moved the minority report of “ought not to pass” in the House, signaling to party members that they should oppose it. He said this new tactic is “extremely disappointing,” and has been used even when a bill passes out of committee with higher majorities. In the past bills with high majorities would have been passed “under the gavel,” without discussion, he said.

During the ensuing discussion on LD 990, an amendment was proposed to remove the language from Ward’s bill that was added in committee. Rather than creating a class B crime of aggravated assault on a police officer, it would make causing bodily injury to a first responder an aggravating factor that must be considered by the court when sentencing.

However, he said he delivered a heartfelt speech on the House floor and succeeded in swaying Democrats to oppose that amendment. And when the full bill came up for a vote, and Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, turned her voting light to green, he said, Democrats chose to support the bill. All Waldo County representatives supported the bill, which passed unanimously June 23 with 11 members absent.

After passing all of those hurdles, Ward said, an error might kill the bill. A fiscal note was attached, though he said there would be no financial impact, and the bill was placed on the appropriations table where bills often go to die at the end of a session. He said he believed it would be removed and given to the governor for his signature in the coming days.

 

 

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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.

 

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