Opinion | A Hate Crime, Caught on Camera

Only a month before Baton Rouge Police Officer Blane Salamoni, a white man, shot and killed Alton Sterling, Louisiana became the very first state in the country to enact a so-called Blue Lives Matter law, which treats crimes committed against police officers as “hate crimes.” There’s good reason people were critical of the law’s intention at the time (it made national headlines), and nearly two years after Sterling’s death, there’s good reason to believe a law treating police officers as if they are victims of the same type of institutional discrimination faced by racial and ethnic minorities only exacerbates distrust and empowers racist police officers to act with impunity. Although the entire country had already seen and been shocked by a cell phone recording of the shooting, the newly-released footage left very little room for interpretation: Officer Salamoni, whose mother and father were both well-regarded career Baton Rouge police officers, arrived in a violent rage and almost immediately threatened to shoot Sterling (who appeared to be intoxicated, confused, but generally compliant). Salamoni dramatically escalated a situation that his partner, Officer Lake, seemed to essentially have under control. And then he shot Sterling, six times, dead. If you haven’t already seen the footage from Salamoni’s body cam, you should, but please be cautioned, it is extremely disturbing: Sterling was armed himself at the time, and for the past two years, that has been held up by some as the justification for Officer Salamoni’s actions. Salamoni subsequently told investigators he was fearful Sterling would use the weapon, which was concealed in his pocket and never brandished at all, against him and bystanders, but the body cam footage incontrovertibly proves that to be preposterous. Salamoni, as others have pointed out, called Alton Sterling everything except for the n-word; his hatred was visceral. “I’ll shoot you in your fucking head,” he shouted at Sterling, only seconds after arriving, and then, within a flash of an instant, he took the man’s life. John Delgado, a lawyer who lobbies on behalf of the Baton Rouge Union of Police, which Salamoni’s father once led as the organization’s president, argued that the officer’s explicit and violent language was a common tactic and a part of standard police training. “I do not believe you will interview a single police officer who will tell you they weren’t trained to speak just like that,” Delgado told The Advocate. It’s complete nonsense. This wasn’t a justified killing by a law enforcement professional; it was a hate crime, caught on camera. While it’s absolutely undeniable that law enforcement officers are too frequently targeted by people driven by a generalized antipathy toward police, usually motivated by a megalomaniacal quest for vigilante justice (later the same year, five police officers were killed in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge), the law has always allowed for prosecutors to seek enhanced sentences and penalties against those found guilty of a crime against the police. The banner of Blue Lives Matter was, of course, a direct reaction to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, which was itself a reaction to the systemic failure of the justice system to prosecute and convict officers who unnecessarily and sometimes cavalierly killed African-Americans accused of petty, inconsequential crimes. Those who championed the law acted as if they were merely motivated by their respect for the law enforcement community, a respect shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans (and which made the bill nearly impossible for legislators to criticize without appearing as anti-police), but the truth is the law was a cynical political weapon proposed by a right-wing white conservative as a way of refuting the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter. It earned him national attention for at least one news cycle, so his mission was accomplished. It’s critical to place Blue Lives Matter in the correct context and to understand the definition of what constitutes a hate crime, a category that, under the law, has never applied to people based on their chosen profession. Hate crime laws are supposed to punish people for targeting someone because of something they can’t change about themselves, like race or ethnicity; the entire body of law originates from the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Louisiana’s Blue Lives Matter has only been used once. After a drunk man was arrested for disturbing the peace at a Bourbon Street hotel in New Orleans, he cursed out responding officers, employing a string of sexist and racist slurs. And yet, even the Anti-Defamation League came to this man’s defense, arguing, among other things, that hate crime laws should only be used when they attach to an underlying crime. That is, if this man had assaulted an African-American officer while shouting racial epithets, that could constitute enhanced sentencing as a hate crime. That night in July of 2016, as Sterling lay on the ground, dying, Officer Blane Salamoni kept calling him a “motherfucker” repeatedly. On Friday, Salamoni finally lost his job, but because of a federal Justice Department led by a man who, years ago, was rejected for a federal judgeship because of his questionable history of racism and a Louisiana state Attorney General who didn’t really bother even pretending to conduct an investigation, Blane Salamoni is still a free man, free to continue his career in law enforcement with any agency in the country willing to hire him.