Georgia Approves Hate Crimes Law, But Critics Say it Could Be Tainted By Pending Bill that Adds Protections for Police

Sanya Mansoor

Georgia — one of only four states without a hate crimes law — is just days away from having one on the books after more than a decade of activists calling for protections for those targeted because of their race, sexual orientation or religion, among other categories. However, while there was celebration today as a bill was finally signed into law by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, it was tainted for some by the approval by both chambers on Tuesday of a police protection measure that almost derailed bipartisan support for the hate crimes legislation and was temporarily included in the same legislative package.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said at the hate crime bill’s signing ceremony on Friday that lawmakers “rose to the occasion” as “Georgians protested to demand action.” Kemp said the measure “does not fix every problem or right every wrong but this bipartisan legislation is a powerful step forward.” The law is set to go in effect on July 1. Kemp’s spokesperson did not respond to requests to comment on the police protection bill, which adds protections for first responders targeted because of their employment.

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, who have both been highlighted in nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, reignited interest in the otherwise stalled hate crimes measure. (White vigilantes fatally shot Arbery as the 25-year-old was jogging in a residential area on Feb. 23; a white police officer shot and killed 27-year-old Brooks on June 12 outside a Wendy’s restaurant as they were responding to complaints of a car blocking the drive-thru.) Outrage over their deaths sparked calls from state lawmakers and a diverse coalition of more than 30 organizations to pass meaningful hate crime legislation after years of failed efforts.

The state president of Georgia’s NAACP Rev. James Woodall applauded the approval by both legislative chambers ahead of its signing by the governor but told TIME the police protection measure is “very disturbing and deeply troubling.” The NAACP said in a statement on Friday that the measure would “further create a toxic divide in our state while further fueling the criminalization and violence against Black people.” He says that allowing police to be a protected class was “disrespectful” to the “legacy” of Brooks and “so many others who go unnamed.”

Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones reversed course from initial comments that she would be present at the hate crime bill’s signing ceremony and said in a statement issued Friday by Georgia NAACP that she believes the police protection measure “is more dangerous to our community than” the hate crimes measure “is good.” “To see the legislature prioritize (the police protection measure) instead of repealing citizens arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son,” she said.

Woodall points out that the state already has laws protecting law enforcement. (In 2017, Georgia’s Legislature passed a ‘back the badge‘ bill that increased punishments to individuals who commit certain crimes against public safety officers.) “It’s not a legislative question; It’s moreso a dog whistle saying that under the guise of public policy, black people’s lives do not matter,” Woodall says, adding that it puts police’s lives above black people’s lives. “When we look at what got us to this moment it wasn’t because people were attacking police,” Woodall says. “The reason that we are here having this conversation in a more urgent manner is because another black person had been shot and killed, another black person had been suffocated to death.”

Georgia is one of only four U.S. states without a hate crimes law, the others are Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming. Some advocacy groups do not recognize Indiana’s hate crimes law, saying it’s “deliberate failure to explicitly list gender identity, gender, and sex is unacceptable.” Failing to do so makes it problematically broad and undermines the purpose of a hate crimes law, says the Anti-Defamation League.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democratic co-sponsor of the current hate crimes bill tells TIME he was a member of Georgia’s legislature two decades ago in 2000 when state lawmakers passed a hate crimes law and voted yes. However, that law was struck down four years later by Georgia’s Supreme Court for being so broad that it would even apply to a sports fan picking on somebody wearing a rival team’s cap. Asked why he thinks Georgia has taken so long to pass and keep a hate crimes law as other states succeeded, Smyre says he isn’t sure. “It’s puzzling to me. I’m really surprised that it’s mired in so many political overtones.” LGBTQ protections have also been a cause of contention for many Republicans to endorse the measure.

After Kemp signed the bill into law, Smyre says he felt “a lot of fulfillment and a lot of joy.” “In my 46 years of serving, I’ve had a lot of moments in my career. This has to be one of my finest moments,” Smyre said after the bill passed both chambers. Still, he says he knows there is still “a lot of work to get accomplished” — among them, police reform.

The hate crimes bill provides sentencing guidelines for anyone found guilty of intentionally targeting a victim because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability. Under the law, a person found guilty of committing a hate crime as it relates to these protected classes would face an additional punishment from six months to a year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for one of five misdemeanor offenses and at least two years in prison for a felony offense. The hate crimes bill also mandates police to report and collect data when they investigate crimes that appear to be hate crimes, whether or not an arrest is made — a measure especially lauded by activist groups that say it will help track the issue.

The hate crimes measure’s Republican author Rep. Chuck Efstration said at Friday’s signing ceremony that this was “truly a historic moment” that addressed an “existing gap” in Georgia’s law. “The inability to call particularly heinous crimes appropriately is a loss to all Georgians,” Efstration said. “Specific offenses may now be classified properly” and crimes motivated by bigotry, racism and hate can be called out for what they are.

The separate police protection measure, which now heads to the governor’s desk for final approval after passing both chambers, specifies that anyone convicted of committing a crime against a first responder, which the bill outlines as a firefighter, police officer or paramedic, because of their occupation would face between one to five years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or both. It would also allow law enforcement to sue any person or group that registers a “complaint against the officer which the person knew was false when it was filed.”

Smyre, like most Democrats, voted against the police protections bill. He maintains that he “supports law enforcement” but that “it’s not the best time” for a divisive measure like this.

“We didn’t come to a compromise on that. They decided to pull (the language out) and do a separate bill,” State Sen. David Lucas, a Democrat, tells TIME. “There was no way I was going to vote for a bill that protects police”

Lucas says he, too, is troubled by the measure to provide protections for first responders. “My problem is why would Georgia make the police a protected class when they are the cause of the problem?” Lucas says.

ACLU Georgia joined the NAACP in criticizing the police protection measure, pointing out in a statement that it could breach rights to freedom of speech and protesting — paving the way to punish “people who say offensive things to the officers who arrest them.” “This legislative action in this moment pours salt in the wounds of the Georgians of all races and backgrounds who are participating daily in protests calling for the reform of policing and expressing their support for black lives,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia.