Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan
Georgia State Patrol motorcycles outside the Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

Georgia lawmakers crossed their aisles as most celebrated passage of a hate crimes bill this week: extra penalties for crimes motivated by hate of a victim’s race, gender or so on. The kumbaya moment almost never arrived as some Republicans insisted on the same enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by hate against cops.

So Republicans alone split off that police protection idea, expanded it, and passed it separately.

“It gives protection to first responders and their families from actions outside of the job that are related to explicit bias,” said Republican state senator and retired law enforcement officer Randy Robertson of Cataula on Wednesday, just before his chamber passed the bill.

The bill makes it an offense to kill or harm a person because of their employment as a first responder, or to heavily destroy or damage their property. The maximum penalties would be a $5,000 fine, up to five years in prison or both.

Laws already on the books prescribe extra charges or penalties for hindering or harming on-duty officers. Democrats objected to having off-duty first responders in the hate crimes bill, however, because being an officer isn’t a category a person is born to. And because bad policing and bad officers have exacerbated suffering of Black Americans.

The new bill also says officers shall have the right to sue any person or organization for damages or abridgement of the officer’s civil rights suffered while the officer is at work. It also says officers can sue folks for knowingly filing false complaints about them.

Democrats in the House raised a bunch of questions about whether the new version of the bill was misguided, vague, or might allow police to sue any group that joined a protest, if one protester punched a cop.

Republican state Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, presented the Senate’s bill almost apologetically. It started as a bill that Hitchens, a retired law enforcement officer, wrote to update language about the office that provides mental health care to state officers.

He first saw the Senate’s additions about five minutes before he had to present it and was short on details.

“I’m dealing with what I was handed,” Hitchens said.

As for the votes, the police protection legislation, though traveling under the number House Bill 838, was a priority of powerful Senate Republicans. And the plain vanilla hate crimes bill, HB 426, was a House priority. So a simultaneous vote — with all the appearance of a hostage-trade — occurred. In the House it passed on a nearly party-line vote, and not a single Senate Democrat voted for it.

The bill now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

The Senate is now voting on HB 426 #gapol #gasenate

— Senate Press Office (@GASenatePress) June 23, 2020 2:55 pm

Vote on motion to agree to Sen sub of HB 838. #GAHB838 #gapol #gahouse #gasen

— Georgia House of Representatives (@GaHouseHub) June 23, 2020 2:56 pm

HB 426 passes by substitute by a vote of 47-6 #gapol #gasenate

— Senate Press Office (@GASenatePress) June 23, 2020 2:57 pm

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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