Georgia Senators Want Police to Be Protected Group Under Hate Crime Laws

Republicans in Georgia's state Senate are pushing to include protections for police officers and other first-responders under new hate crime legislation, in a step that could derail efforts to increase penalties for those committing crimes motivated by race, religion or sexual orientation.

The Georgia state House of Representatives approved a hate crimes bill more than a year ago, voting 96-64 to send the legislation to the Senate. It would give sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim due to their race, skin color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. Georgia is one of only four states without such a law.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation Friday night, but added "first responders" as an additional protected group alongside those proposed by the House, AP reported.

Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert defended the move, describing it as "imperative that we support our law enforcement personnel that puts their life on the line for us, just as we do these other classes, categories, groups, of individuals."

Recent nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism have also rocked state capital Atlanta, where demonstrations were given fresh momentum by the killing of Black man Rayshard Brooks by police earlier this month.

Brooks, 27, was found inebriated and asleep in his car in the drive-thru lane of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant, prompting police to try and detain him. Following a scuffle, Brooks grabbed one officer's tasers and ran, turning to fire the taser back at pursuing officer Garrett Rolfe⁠—who then shot Brooks twice in the back.

Rolfe then reportedly stood over and kicked Brooks as he lay wounded, failing to administer any medical assistance for two minutes. Fellow officer Devin Brosnan stood on Brooks' shoulder as he was dying. Brosnan has been placed on desk duty, charged with aggravated assault and violation of his oath.

Rolfe has now been dismissed from the force and charged with felony murder and ten other charges over the incident. Atlanta Chief of Police Erika Shields resigned the day after the killing, saying she wanted to help rebuild trust between the police and the local community.

Atlanta officers have reportedly protested against the decision to charge Rolfe, with some phoning in sick and refusing to come to work. Interim police chief Rodney Bryant told AP some officers are "angry. Some are fearful. Some are confused on what we do in this space. Some may feel abandoned."

CNN reported that a majority of officers due to be on duty in two of the city's six police zones did not report for work on Friday, citing unidentified law enforcement sources.

The Senate-proposed protection for police officers may be welcomed by officers complaining of unfair treatment. Georgia Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican, said he first supported the bill with no amendments but now: "I don't know how we can take out first responders."

Democrats on the Judicial Committee protested the move. Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta, said she was open to discussing protections for first responders but not as part of the proposed bill. "To put them in the same legislation as immutable characteristics misses the moment and is a slap in the face," she said.

House members also expressed discomfort over the inclusion of first responders in the bill Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican, sponsored the legislation in the House.

"It's incredibly important that this legislation be passed this year, and poison-pill amendments which are brought only for the purpose of causing division and causing Democrat opposition in order to ensure failure of the legislation is unacceptable," Efstration said.

Efstration did not say he would vote against the first responder amendment, but said that "bad faith on behalf of the Senate to fail to engage in a meaningful dialog is notable," accusing the chamber's Republican leadership of trying to sabotage the bill.

His Democratic colleague Rep. Calvin Smyre was more assured in his response. "This is certainly something that we cannot live with and that we cannot support," he said.

Senators took to the floor on Saturday with impassioned speeches on the proposed legislation, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported. Democratic Sen. David Lucas condemned his Republican colleagues and vowed he would "never" vote for the amended bill.

Georgia, Atlanta, hate crime, law, police, senators
People gather at the Georgia State Capitol during a Juneteenth event Organized by the One Race Movement on June 19, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Getty