Police in, then out, as Georgia hate crimes bill moves ahead

ATLANTA (AP) — In an abrupt turn, Republicans in the Georgia Senate removed protections for police from hate crimes legislation on Monday night, just days after adding them in over the objection of civil rights groups and Democrats.

First responders were removed as a protected class from the bill by the Senate Rules Committee after lawmakers said they struck a deal between parties.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions with the minority party for the large part of two days and within our own Republican caucus and we’ve reached a compromise that I think everybody will be pleased with,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, who introduced the change.

Calls for Georgia to remove itself from the list of four U.S. states without a hate crimes law have grown following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued and fatally shot near Brunswick, Georgia, in February. Three white men, including a father and son, are charged in his death. The calls have intensified further amid nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

Passed over a year ago by the state House, House Bill 426 would impose additional penalties for crimes motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

Many supporters of the bill were angered when Republicans added “status of being or having been a first responder” in committee on Friday. The ACLU and NAACP, as well as the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses were among those opposed to the bill with law enforcement included.

The Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, said in an interview earlier Monday that language protecting police was “toxic and a poison pill.”

State Sen. David Lucas, a Democrat from Macon, said Saturday on the Senate floor that it would be wrong to include police as a protected class amid protests over wrongdoing by law enforcement. “In a hate crime bill, that’s been brought on by incidents by police, and then to take them and put them in as a protected class ... I would never vote for it. Never,” Lucas said.

But Monday's changes seem likely to quell much of that opposition.

“I believe we’ll be recommending the bill to our caucus,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, said during the committee meeting Monday after first responders were removed.

In addition to removing first responders from the bill, senators added “sex” as a protected factor and limited the crimes that enhancements can be applied to. They also added data collection and reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies investigating hate crimes, something that Woodall and other proponents have called for.

The bill could soon move to the Senate floor for a vote. Time is running short, with the state’s legislative session set to wrap up Friday.

Proponents have tried for several years to get hate crimes legislation passed, after the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 struck down a state hate crime statute for being too broad. But efforts have languished, with some conservatives cool to the idea. Some of that apprehension may still linger.

“I don’t want for a second to convey that I would support this as is on the floor by not opposing it here in this committee,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton. “I do have some questions and concerns about it.”