Though the proposed ordinance’s powerful sponsor is staying away from the “Blue Lives Matter” phrase, this week Alderman Edward Burke doubled down on his intention to add police, fire, and emergency medical personnel to the list of protected classes under the city’s hate crime law.
“Why would I drop it?” Burke told reporters Wednesday at City Hall, according to DNAinfo, despite the chairman of the Public Safety Committee not bringing the ordinance up for consideration this week. "I think police lives are as important as our lives … I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t honor them and follow the lead of so many other jurisdictions around the nation.”
Yet, police officers and other emergency personnel already receive protections enshrined in state law. A regular assault (in Illinois: “engag[ing] in conduct which places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery") can be classified as an aggravated assault (which carries harsher penalties) if it’s committed against a list of “special victim” categories, including:
A peace officer, community policing volunteer, fireman, private security officer, emergency management worker, emergency medical technician, or utility worker:
(i) performing his or her official duties;
(ii) assaulted to prevent performance of his or her official duties; or
(iii) assaulted in retaliation for performing his or her official duties.
“In my view, getting an aggravated assault charge is far more serious than having an ordinance violation. There’s already protections for police officers that are more heavy than what the ordinance is proposing,” says Karen Sheley, director of police practices at the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had previously released a statement criticizing the proposed ordinance, calling it a “distraction” from Chicago’s police accountability crisis.
Practically, a person who commits a crime against a police officer already faces stiff penalties, says constitutional law expert and professor of law at University of Chicago Geoffrey Stone.
“If I was trying to defend this law, forget about hate crime—what you should say is that attacking police officers is particularly harmful to society, in the way that it keeps him from doing his job,” Stone says, noting that those laws are already on the books. “So the question is, why do we need this new law? Other than the symbolic dumping on Black Lives Matter, which is ugly.”
Burke is now avoiding the phrase “Blue Lives Matter,” perhaps to avoid the comparison, but Sheley says, "Given his approach from the beginning, he’s made his message clear.”
Adding public safety personnel to the hate crime ordinance also raises legal concerns, Stone says: "That is a complete distortion of what the notion of a hate crime is. If you look at that list [of protected classes under hate crime law] … those characteristics have certain things in common: generally immutable, can’t control them, traditionally been bases of discrimination historically, and they go toward individual dignity and identity.”
He says that while he understands why it’s necessary to distinguish between an act committed against police versus regular citizens, for instance, “it’s a crime to lie to a police officer who’s investigating a crime, but it’s not a crime to lie to a reporter,” that the use of hate crime laws is inappropriate.
Hate crime experts say that it’s uncommon for a person’s profession to be the reason to receive hate crime protection, though Chicago’s ordinance currently protects active and former military personnel. Chicago activists fighting for strengthened police accountability measures, and in some cases, police abolition, say the ordinance is an attempt to silence or limit the First Amendment rights of protesters.
As for how the ordinance could play out, a similar law is already in effect in New Orleans, where this week a man was charged with hate crimes after shouting racist and sexist slurs at police officers.