‘Blue Lives’ do indeed matter

By state Rep. Frank Burns

Shortly after I announced my intention last summer to introduce a Blue Lives Matter bill making it a hate crime to assault law enforcement personnel, I was approached by a colleague on the House floor and asked, politely, to change the name.

The implied message from this emissary, I knew, was that some folks in the legislature didn’t like what I was proposing and were subtly trying to get me to back off. After all, during my eight years in the House, I had never once tried to dissuade a fellow legislator from pursuing his or her chosen course, nor had I ever had it happen to me.

I refused to budge – and am proud to say that ever since the July introduction of H.B. 2261, the response throughout the 72nd Legislative District has been overwhelmingly positive. My constituents, like most Pennsylvanians, are aghast at the near-daily news report of police officers being targeted for attack and, in some cases, cold-blooded assassination.

These days, there doesn’t even appear to be such a thing as a routine traffic stop. While that’s a sad commentary on where we are as a nation, it doesn’t change the fact that working in law enforcement appears more dangerous than ever.

Some people have wrongly attempted to frame my effort as a racial issue. When I’ve been asked about this during interviews, I kindly issue a reminder that my bill would cover all police officers, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs or any other label all-too-often used to divide our society.

I am proud that almost instantaneously with its introduction, my bill received a full-throated endorsement from the 40,000-member Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police. These people have experience on the front lines of keeping us safe, and are no strangers to risking their lives so we all can live and work in a secure environment.

By the way, my bill is not limited in scope to police officers. It would also make it a hate crime to assault a corrections, probation or parole officer. If you don’t think they need covered, ask a prison guard about the dangers he or she face every day.

The Pennsylvania State Police, the law enforcement backbone throughout much of our commonwealth and the exclusive provider in many rural areas, is currently seeking to fill nearly 500 trooper openings. The application deadline is Dec. 31, and it goes without saying my offices can help anyone interested.

But what we really should be concerned with is making sure that qualified candidates are not turned off because of the current volatile climate. I’ve stated this many times: Would you want to embark on a police officer career knowing that from day one, you’re walking around with a target on your back?

My Blue Lives Matter bill – and that’s what I’m calling it, yesterday, today and forever -- stalled in the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee last year. But I’m gearing up to reintroduce it for the new two-year legislative session in January, with high hopes for bipartisan support and eventual passage into law.

Here’s how it would work: The penalty for the underlying crime would be increased by one degree, if it occurs against a member of law enforcement. For example, if the crime is normally a first-degree misdemeanor, it would become a third-degree felony. A second-degree felony would become a first-degree felony, and so on.

Some have argued that this bill isn’t necessary, since it won’t prevent attacks on law enforcement personnel. That may or may not be true, but it’s not the point or the goal. As I noted in September, there’s been an intolerable 78-percent increase in the number of shooting deaths of police officers nationwide in the past year.

The least we can do in Pennsylvania is put employment as a law enforcement officer on the same level as race, color, religion and national origin when it comes to our state’s hate crime law. That’s what I’m attempting to do and I welcome your support.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, represents the 72nd Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.