Georgia Lawmakers Pass Hate Crimes Legislation, More Police Protections

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.

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s legislature on Tuesday passed hate crimes legislation deemed essential by business and many political leaders, sending the measure to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

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

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 the Republican will 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. Georgia’s Supreme Court overturned an earlier state law in 2004, leaving the state as one of four without specific anti-bias protections.

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,” said Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.

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.

Ralston told reporters that he had “rejected” the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote along party lines to add police and emergency personnel and that he “communicated” that to Senate leaders.

“Frankly that disturbed me because I thought it was extremely important that this be a bipartisan bill,” Ralston said. “You don’t pass a hate crimes bill, which is a piece of legislation with this kind of historic nature and consequence, along party lines.”

But the speaker said he told senators that they could bring the language in a separate bill if they wanted.

Some of the groups seeking hate crimes protections said they were more concerned with keeping police protections out of the hate crimes law than blocking them entirely.

“Having it not in the hate crimes bill is acceptable,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, the southern division vice president of the Anti-Defamation League.

Most of the ‘no’ votes on the hate crimes bill came from Republicans. Some have 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.”

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