In One State Legislature, a Back-and-Forth Over Whether Police Deserve Hate Crime Protection

A member of law enforcement outside the Georgia State Capitol during a recent protest organized by the NAACP.

A member of law enforcement outside the Georgia State Capitol during a recent protest organized by the NAACP. Michael Scott Milner/Shutterstock

 

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In Georgia, passage of a hate crimes bill was momentarily stalled over a provision added by Republicans to include police officers. But the legislature is moving forward separately with enhanced penalties for people convicted of targeting police officers.

A landmark hate crimes bill that passed through the Georgia legislature on Tuesday with bipartisan support got caught up in a different debate for some time: Should police officers also be categorized as a protected class in that law?

Georgia is currently one of only four states that does not have a hate crime law protecting victims who were targeted based on race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The measure, which last year had bipartisan support in the House but didn’t make it through the state Senate, picked up renewed urgency after outrage grew about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger shot by two white men in a rural Georgia town.

But Republicans in one Senate committee last week introduced an amendment that would have included first responders as victims protected by the law, which they said was necessary due to animus directed toward police following weeks of protests over police brutality.

The amendment was vehemently criticized by the Georgia NAACP during a hearing last Friday, where Rev. James Woodall, the organization’s president, called it a “literal endorsement of state-sponsored dehumanization of Black people.” Senate Democrats also decried the amendment, which they said “undermines the purpose of hate crime legislation.”

Republicans reversed course on Monday and removed the amendment from the hate crimes bill, instead adding an amendment regarding “bias motivated intimidation” of police officers to a different bill creating a “Peace Officers Bill of Rights.” Under that legislation, those who target police officers face between one and five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Under the hate crimes bill, people convicted of targeting a protected class would face three months to a year in prison and pay a fine up to $5,000 for misdemeanors and a minimum of two years in prison and a $5,000 fine for felony offenses.

The hate crimes bill passed the legislature late Tuesday, and Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said he will sign it. House Speaker David Ralston, also a Republican, had opposed including police in the hate crimes bill, saying the provision would jeopardize the legislation passing with votes from both parties. “You don’t pass a hate crimes bill, which is a piece of legislation of this kind of historic nature and consequence, on party lines,” said Ralston, who called the measure’s passage “a defining moment” for the state.

The bill that includes the “bias motivated intimidation” of police officers also passed, though Kemp has not said whether he will sign it. 

Four states—Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi—passed laws between 2016 and 2017 that include police under hate crime statutes. In Louisiana, which passed the first law in 2016, proponents argued that high-profile targeting of police and firefighters in violent incidents supported including them as a protected class. “The men and women who put their lives on the line every day, often under very dangerous circumstances are true heroes and they deserve every protection that we can give them,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and son of a sheriff, in a statement after he signed the law. 

These “Blue Lives Matter” laws, as they are sometimes dubbed in a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, have been opposed by civil rights groups and other activists who say that hate crime laws are meant to protect people who are marginalized due to personal characteristics like race, sexual orientation, or religion, not people who choose to take on certain occupations. 

Others have made more legal arguments that hate crime protections for police are largely unnecessary because these laws usually “recriminalize already criminal behavior” to demonstrate “the government’s commitment to treating crimes that had long been downplayed or ignored as serious offenses.” Blue Lives Matter laws, they argue, don’t signify a significant shift in how people who attack police will be punished because crimes against police are already treated extremely seriously in most jurisdictions and typically already carry enhanced punishments. 

Still, these bills have been introduced in at least a dozen states in the past few years, including California, Virginia, and New York, though none have seen legislative success. Other states, like Arizona, have increased the penalties for attacking or assaulting police officers in recent years, but have stopped short of explicitly designating the issue a hate crime.

Law enforcement advocates have called for such protections for years. In 2015, following the shooting deaths of two police officers in New York, the National Fraternal Order of Police pressed for federal legislation that would make attacking police officers a hate crime. 

"Americans who choose to be law enforcement officers, who choose to serve their communities and put their lives on the line for their fellow citizens, find themselves hunted and targeted just because of the uniform they wear," Chuck Canterbury, the organization’s president, wrote in a letter to President Obama.

Federal legislation that would liken attacks on police to hate crimes was introduced in 2018 but stalled in committee. 

Before the bill including the amendment that increases penalties for “bias motivated intimidation” of police officers passed the Georgia House on Tuesday, the Georgia ACLU urged House members not to vote for it and said that they will “explore all options to protect the First Amendment rights of Georgians,” which they argued are threatened by the measure. The civil rights organization pointed to a case in Pennsylvania where a Black man called the police ‘Nazis’ and was charged with a hate crime. 

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, added that the legislation “pours salt in the wounds of the Georgians of all races and backgrounds who are participating daily in protests calling for the reform of policing and expressing their support for Black lives.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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