Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a bill toughening already-stringent criminal penalties for attacks on law enforcement personnel on Monday, joining a handful of other states in passing redundant measures deeming police a special class of victim.
These so-called “Blue Lives Matter” laws ostensibly protect police by imposing harsher prison sentences for violent crimes perpetrated against officers.
It is unclear why someone who already faced stiff criminal penalties under existing law would be deterred by these enhanced sentences. But given how commonly police misuse “assaulting an officer” charges to punish people for defiance, the metastasis of the Blue Lives Matter policy package is ripe for abuse.
Arizona, like almost every other state in the country, already had far stiffer criminal penalties for crimes targeting police and other emergency responders. Simple assault becomes aggravated assault if committed against a peace officer, for example, shifting it from a misdemeanor to a felony automatically.
The bill makes few substantive changes to that pre-existing legal architecture to protect officers. It specifies that the tougher penalties for crimes against officers still apply if they are not on duty when they are attacked, and triggers tougher penalties if prosecutors can prove an attacker specifically targeted an officer because of her profession.
It also specifies that the bill must “be cited as the ‘Blue Lives Matter Law.’”
The few legislators who voted against the bill explained they support police officers but disliked the apparent political nature of the redundant measure Ducey signed on Monday.
State Rep. Reginald Bolding (D) “took umbrage” with the bill’s title and political premise, according to the Arizona Republic.
“For myself and my colleagues, we all support police and law-enforcement officers,” Bolding said. “This is a bill that is searching for a problem when there is not one.”
It may indeed create new ones. A mischievous kid with a paintball gun who ends up tagging an off-duty cop in street clothes would now face felony charges. An off-duty cop who loses a bar fight could get the man who knocked him down sent to prison for years.
Still, the politics of the issue make such arguments very difficult in legislatures across the country. And in Arizona, where a state trooper was wounded in January in an attack described by local reports as an ambush, it would have been almost impossible. Such attacks — which gain much media attention but remain a rarity in a profession where car accidents are the leading cause of death — have reshaped public debate around police accountability and the balance of public safety and civil rights.
It’s the second time in a week that Ducey has signed legislation which divides police agencies and the communities they serve, though the pair of bills play on that divide in opposite directions.
Last Wednesday, Ducey signed an overhaul of the state’s civil asset forfeiture system intended to better protect civilians from the widely-abused, constitutionally suspect practice of police confiscation of property from people merely suspected of criminal activity. That legislation won accolades from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose policy director called it “commonsense, incremental refor[m].”
The group has yet to comment on Ducey’s signing of the Blue Lives Matter law. But a far more dramatic change to state law governing police interactions with dissenters, which would have treated protest organizers like racketeers, appears to have died quietly after broad public outcry.