By Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When the U.S. Congress returns in September from a summer recess, it is expected to consider legislation called the Blue Lives Matter Act that would make killing a police officer a hate crime, a step first taken by Louisiana earlier this year.
Debate in Louisiana over the law enacted in May pitted police unions, which supported tougher hate-crime sentences for police assailants, against civil rights groups, which felt police did not face the historic discrimination hate-crime laws were intended to address.
The Louisiana debate could play out on a national stage with the Blue Lives Matter Act as police shooting deaths this month in Dallas and Baton Rouge stoke momentum for action to combat violence against police and build support for the law.
“Since the Baton Rouge tragedy, we’ve received calls and messages from around the country from individuals asking about the Blue Lives Matter Act, and we’re confident more members of Congress will be co-sponsoring the legislation as soon as they can when Congress reconvenes,” said Kyle Huwa, a spokesman for the bill's author, Colorado Republican Representative Ken Buck.
Sixteen Republicans in the House of Representatives are co-sponsoring the bill, which was introduced in March and has failed to gain Democratic support.
Its title plays off the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in protest against police use of force against minorities, especially black men, and deaths of minorities at the hands of police in recent years.
Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director Jim Pasco said he has in private meetings urged President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to protect police under the federal hate crime statute.
That law covers violence motivated by bias against a victim's race, gender, national origin, religion or sexual orientation and imposes harsher penalties as a deterrent.
But Pasco said he received no confirmation such a move would be supported by the administration. The Justice Department and the White House declined to comment on their positions.
In the shooting deaths of three police officers in Baton Rouge on Sunday, Louisiana prosecutors would have been able to seek hate crime penalties against gunman Gavin Long if he had survived.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington based advocacy group, said many states have increased penalties for assaults against police and police deaths have been declining.
Police shootings overall have been down in recent years. Preliminary Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics released Monday show 41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2015. That was down almost 20 percent from 51 officers killed in 2014.
"We should not use this as a moment to dilute the unique problem of long standing discrimination and violence directed toward groups on the basis of race in our country," Clarke said.