Last Thursday, after being inactive for over a year, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a long anticipated hearing on HB 426, which is the latest attempt to pass a hate crime bill. The committee was dually tasked with considering Rep. Chuck Efstration’s (R-Dacula) bill that passed the House last year, but also with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s effort, introduced last week at a press conference.
At the hearing, the expected collective of voices showed support: Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center, Georgia Chapter of the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, Georgia Equality, and several Rabbis. The only person voicing opposition was from the Family Policy Alliance.
Former Attorney General Sam Olens, who authored an op-ed, cited the need for a severability clause and necessity to include sex, gender, and sexual orientation.
Late Friday evening at the Senate Judiciary committee meeting, Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) inserted language to add police officers and first responders to a protected class that is usually codified to protect race, gender, sexual orientation. In an exchange between Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) and Sen. Harold Jones II (D-Augusta), the Republican Senator justified the need to include law enforcement officers as a protected class similar to those included in federal anti-discrimination law. It should be noted that SB 160 “Back the Badge” was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal and increased punishment for certain crimes against law enforcement.
“All we’re doing with this Senate version is saying it is also important to protect our first responders…we need these people to help protect us,” Sen. Cowsert said in testimony.
Sen. Harold Jones II (D-Augusta) questioned the inclusion of first responders and in turn mentioned that individuals with mental disability and sexual orientation showed a documented case of being discriminated against by the state of Georgia. “This legislative body has shown over and over that it will protect law enforcement, it is consistently shown that it will do that,” he also said.
”The problem is not the same when you’re talking about an occupation and when you’re talking about people’s characteristics,” Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) added later.
On Saturday, two speeches drew significant attention:
“…I am the only Jewish person in this room. “If there is anybody in this room who wants a hate crimes bill — I converted to Judaism from Catholicism. For 40 years, for 40 years, over 40 years, I have been the point of a lot of hate crimes, in a lot of just unbelievable things said to me because I’m Jewish, and discriminated against. “If there is any one person in this room who wants a hate crimes bill more than me, I don’t know who you are. But I will stay here from night to day, drive miles and miles and miles to get here, to accomplish that — because I want it. But I will not sit here and be intimidated…”Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford)
“But let me say something to you. The reason we are here, in all of the discussion around the world, is because of police. It’s because of police, because somebody in a police department did something that was ludicrous. We’re not saying that all policemen — there’s something wrong with them.
When something is going on, you dial 911 ’cause you want some help. You want somebody to show up that can do something. But in a hate crimes bill, that’s been brought on by incidents by police — and then to take them, and put them in a protected class in a hate crimes bill I will never vote for. Never.
We as a Democratic caucus would not pass a bill that’s got a protected occupation in it. A policeman is a person, just like me and you…Resist arrest, fight back with a police officer, and look at the charges you get.
Don’t tell me I didn’t see the police officer with his hand in his pocket, steadily add pressure to George Floyd. Don’t tell me I didn’t see the guy running that took the Taser. And you’ve got a Taser, you’ve got to have been shot with the Taser before you can carry it. And y’all say it don’t kill, but you running with a Taser, point and running, and you get shot twice in the back?
You got his driver’s license. You got the car. If anything, you can send the fugitive squad to get him. They have about seven or eight folks. He wouldn’t have been able to whoop them. But it’s about cojones. A police officer made a decision ’cause he got his butt whooped. That’s what happened. So we need to get this thing right and get it done the right way and move on.”Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon)
At a Senate Rules Committee meeting last night, Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) announced he had “Reached a compromise everyone will be pleased with.” In the substituted language, law enforcement protected class was removed and the language revised regarding felony and misdemeanor crimes. Instead of listing any statutes, the new language includes felonies and five designated misdemeanors that may warrant enhanced punishment above a normal sentence. Also to be included are reporting provisions for bias and discrimination based crimes.
According to the AJC’s Morning Jolt, “[Sen.] Cowsert, [Lt. Gov.] Duncan and Democratic state Sen. Harold Jones struck the compromise, which also earned the support of the Georgia NAACP and other key advocacy groups.”
Protections for police and other first responders were amended into HB 838. “Under that legislation, anyone who is found guilty of targeting a first responder could face between one and five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.”
Both bills are expected to be considered today in the Senate. Should they pass, they will be sent to the House for a final vote. If approved, they will be sent to the Governor, who would either sign in approval, veto, or leave unsigned.