Republicans in the Georgia state Senate are pushing for the protection of police officers and other first responders to be included in the new hate crime law, a move that undermines efforts to increase penalties for those motivated by race, religion, or sexual orientation could.
The Georgia State House of Representatives passed a hate crime bill more than a year ago and voted 96-64 to refer the bill to the Senate. There would be condemnation guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim because of their race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental or physical disability. Georgia is one of only four states without such a law.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill Friday night but added “first responders” as an additional protected group alongside those proposed by the House of Representatives, AP reported.
Republican Senator Bill Cowsert defended the move, describing it as “imperative that we support our law enforcement agencies who are putting their lives on the line for us, just as we do for these other classes, categories, groups and individuals.”
Recent nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism have also rocked the state capital, Atlanta, where demonstrations were rejuvenated after the police murder of black Rayshard Brooks earlier this month.
Brooks, 27, was found drunk and asleep in his car in the drive-through lane of a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, prompting police to arrest him. After a scuffle, Brooks grabbed an officer’s taser and ran, turning to fire the taser at the pursuing officer Garrett Rolfe – who then shot Brooks twice in the back.
Rolfe is said to have stood over and kicked Brooks when he lay wounded and did not give medical attention for two minutes. Colleague Devin Brosnan stood on Brooks’ shoulder as he lay dying. Brosnan was assigned to desk duty and charged with aggravated assault and breaking oath.
Rolfe has now been released from the police force and charged with murder and ten other charges related to the incident. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned The day after the murder, she said she wanted to help restore trust between the police and the local community.
Atlanta officials reportedly protested the decision to indict Rolfe, with some calling in sick and refusing to come to work. Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant told AP that some officers are “angry. Some are scared. Some are confused about what we are doing in this area. Some may feel abandoned.”
CNN reported that the majority of officers supposed to be on duty in two of the city’s six police zones failed to report for work on Friday, citing unidentified law enforcement sources.
The Senate’s proposed protection for police officers can be welcomed by officials who complain of unfair treatment. Georgia Senator Brian Strickland, a Republican, said he initially backed the bill with no changes, but now, “I don’t know how we can turn off first responders.”
Democrats on the Justice Committee protested. Senator Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta, said she was open to discussions about protective measures for first responders, but not as part of the proposed bill. “Putting them in the same legislation as immutable properties is a miss of the moment and a slap in the face,” she said.
House members also expressed unease about the inclusion of first responders in the bill. Republican Chuck Efstration supported the House of Representatives.
“It is incredibly important that this law be passed later this year, and changes to the poison pills, which are only being introduced for the purpose of division and Democratic opposition, to ensure that failure of the law is unacceptable,” Efstration said.
Efstration did not say he would vote against the first responder amendment, but said that “the Senate’s bad faith in not engaging in meaningful dialogue is remarkable,” and accused the Chamber’s Republican leadership of attempting to sabotage the law .
His Democratic colleague Rep. Calvin Smyre was more certain in his answer. “That is certainly something that we cannot live with and that we cannot support,” he said.
Senators made passionate speeches on the bill on Saturday, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported. Democratic Senator David Lucas condemned his Republican colleagues and vowed he would “never” vote for the amended law.