ATLANTA — Lawmakers who pushed for the passage of a hate crimes bill got what they wanted — but not without a price.
Another bill that expands protections for law enforcement personnel in Georgia passed narrowly in both chambers after Senate Republicans previously attempted to add police to the list of “protected groups” in the hate crimes bill.
The pro-law enforcement legislation was part of a compromise struck between the House and Senate to get the hate crimes bill to the governor’s desk.
The bill protects police from a “bias motivated intimidation” offense specifically meant to “intimidate, harass or terrorize.” Anyone found guilty of committing a crime against a first responder — a firefighter, police officer or paramedic — because of their occupation would face between one and five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
First responders would also be allowed to sue any person, group or corporation who files a false complaint against them.
The bill passed the House 92-74.
Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, the bill’s sponsor in the House and a former state patrol officer, said he suspects law enforcement will start seeing less and less people sign up for duty in the current social climate.
“It’s a dangerous job,” he said on the floor Tuesday. “For the pay that they get, it just amazes me, and I think we’re about to see a real decline in people who want to be law enforcement officers.”
Hitchens detailed instances during his time in law enforcement when police officers were wrongfully accused. He also said he knew more than a dozen patrolmen who died in the line of duty.
“A lot of our law enforcement personnel across this state are subjected to a lot of what would be criminal activity if this passes,” he said. “Just because they do what they do.”
But the idea of adding more protections in a time when millions across the country are taking to the streets to protest police brutality did not sit well with some lawmakers.
At the same time, not far from the Capitol, the funeral for Rayshard Brooks, who was shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer outside of a Wendy's restaurant, was held at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor.
“We are pitting law enforcement against our citizens,” Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said. “I don’t know what to say. I love this chamber, I love this body. But I’ve never been so disappointed in my life.”
House Speaker David Ralston said Tuesday after both the pro-law enforcement legislation and hate crimes bill passed that he was “very troubled” by the initial Senate committee vote to include law enforcement in the hate crimes legislation.
While the House dragged its feet on a vote, Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who authored the change to the hate crimes bill and presented it on the Senate floor, warned House lawmakers to move forward with the expanded police protections.
“We need to make that statement a principle of where we stand,” he said about supporting the state’s law enforcement.
But Democrats argued the bill was vague and the bill would empower officers to sue at a time when protesters are calling for lawmakers to dismantle qualified immunity for law enforcement officers on a national level.
“(The bill) will cause more harm than good,” said Rep. Mable “Able” Thomas, D-Atlanta.
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.