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Black Lives Matter protest

Protesters rally outside the City-County Building in Madison in 2014.

Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. But some lives apparently matter more than others.

That’s true whether you’re talking about the rate at which various groups of people are the victims of violence, or about a proposal from Republican state Rep. David Steffen to make targeting cops a hate crime.

Police already benefit from statutory protections denied to people of other occupations.

State law provides tougher penalties for those who threaten or assault current or former officers or their family members. Murdering a police officer is among the crimes for which federal prosecutors can seek the death penalty.

There’s also precedent for making an occupation something of a “protected class.”

Madison’s civil rights ordinance and state fair-housing law, for example, bar discrimination based on “source of income.” You can’t deny an apartment lease to someone just because he runs an adult bookstore, trades derivatives on Wall Street or labors away in some other morally suspect profession.

But unlike Steffen’s proposal, anti-discrimination laws don’t single out specific professions as being more worthy of protection than others. There are a lot of professions people love to hate, after all: bill collectors, telemarketers, lawyers. If hatred for how you make a living is directly responsible for your victimization, why does it matter what you do for a living?

Steffen rejects this “slippery slope” argument — the notion that adding policing to the hate crime law will lead to a flood of people asking lawmakers to include their professions.

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“It’s a sign of intellectual laziness,” he said. Lawmakers are capable of determining how much change is enough, he said, and pointed to laws increasing the speed limit and raising the legal drinking age as proof.

Steffen acknowledged that being a cop is not the same as being black or gay or otherwise part of one of those historically discriminated-against groups that have benefited from special legal protections deemed constitutional by the courts.

UW-Madison professor and constitutional expert Howard Schweber didn’t think Steffen’s proposal was likely to run into constitutional problems, though.

Recent judicial thinking has moved toward evaluating laws based on whether they treat people differently based on race, sexuality and other more intrinsic characteristics, “rather than (on) whether they target a vulnerable minority,” he said.

This makes it “easier to justify a law that seeks to protect” people who aren’t part of such groups, he said, because “laws that benefit or harm a minority group are viewed with equal skepticism.”

And while the First Amendment protects hateful speech, Schweber said a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision found that it’s not a First Amendment violation for Wisconsin’s Legislature to conclude that “hate crimes are more injurious to the community than ordinary crimes, and on that basis to impose harsher punishments.”

I’ve never felt Wisconsin cops were worthy of hatred.

But I’ve never seen those who carry guns and detain people on behalf of the government as the most likely of victims, either.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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