Georgia passes hate crimes bill, protections for police

Republican lawmakers tied passage of the hate crimes bill (H.B. 426) to simultaneous passage of H.B. 838, which mandates penalties for crimes targeting first responders


ATLANTA — Georgia’s legislature on Tuesday passed hate crimes legislation deemed essential by state leaders, sending the measure to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

The price Republicans exacted for moving that legislation forward was simultaneous passage of a bill that would mandate penalties for crimes targeting police and other first responders.

Lawyer Daniel Brown holds a poster calling on Georgia lawmakers to pass a state hate crimes law on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Atlanta. Image: AP Photo/Jeff Amy
Lawyer Daniel Brown holds a poster calling on Georgia lawmakers to pass a state hate crimes law on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Atlanta. Image: AP Photo/Jeff Amy

The action comes after Senate Republicans had added police as a protected class to the hate crimes legislation last week in committee, but then later moved those protections to a separate bill in a deal between the parties.

Democrats on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly against House Bill 838, which includes the increased protections for first responders. The hate crimes legislation, House Bill 426, had bipartisan support, though some conservatives voted against it.

Kemp's office said in a statement that he'll sign the hate crimes bill, pending a legal review.

"Victims need protection against any attack motivated by hatred due to bias or prejudice,” said Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat from Atlanta, who spoke about her own experiences facing discrimination as a Black woman. “House Bill 426 is a measured approach at doing all of the things that we need to do to treat this injustice. It’s time that Georgia rise up and show that we will not stand for crimes done out of hate.”

A push for passage of the hate crimes bill has gained momentum after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as nationwide protests of racial injustice and police brutality. Arbery, a Black man, was pursued and fatally shot near Brunswick, Georgia, in February. Three white men, including a father and son, are charged in his death.

The hate crimes bill would impose additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

House Speaker David Ralston, who had heavily pressured the Senate to act on the measure, congratulated lawmakers after the House agreed 127-38 to the Senate changes on the hate crimes legislation.

“Today we can all stand together. Today we have said that we will not be defined by a senseless act of evil, and by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, but that our Georgia is better than this," Ralston said.

Bipartisan support for the hate crimes measure was thrown in doubt after Senate Republicans added “status of being or having been a first responder” as a protected class in a committee last week. The ACLU, NAACP and House and Senate Democratic caucuses are among groups that came out against the bill with the first responder provision added. But the language protecting police and other emergency responders was removed Monday in a deal that saw police protections split off into a separate bill.

Most of the ‘no’ votes on the hate crimes bill in the House came from Republicans. Rep. Ed Setzler expressed discontent that the Senate had added data collection and reporting requirements that some conservatives dislike because it will require reports be sent to the state even when charges aren’t filed. Others maintained a philosophical disagreement with the measure, like Rep. Matt Gurtler, a Republican from Tiger who is seeking the GOP nomination in a congressional race.

“We should not be lowering and highering the standard of justice based on immutable factors such as race, ethnicity and gender,” Gurtler said.

Many critics of the legislation containing enhanced police protections say that the law isn't needed because Georgia already has strong protections for law enforcement.

Marissa McCall Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, urged lawmakers to vote down the bill providing increased protection for police, saying in a statement that it “creates a hate crime for cops and other first responders.”

Dodson added, “There is no need to increase punishments for people who commit crimes against first responders because Georgia law already provides adequate protection as well as enhanced penalties when first responders are the victims of crime.”

Next: How can civic leaders respond to hate crimes?

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