Georgia lawmakers returned to the Capitol in mid-June in a state transformed not only by the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted them to suspend the 2020 legislative session, but by a growing movement that some days arrived just outside the building as protesters pushed to reform or defund police departments.
The videotaped death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests against police violence across the state and country. Earlier, the release of a video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death at the hands of a group of white men went viral during the suspension, spurring calls for a repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest law and passing of a hate crimes law. Days before the Capitol reopened, Atlanta Police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, further heightening tensions between protesters and law enforcement.
Thousands of protesters led by the Georgia NAACP marched on the Gold Dome in June to demand an end to police brutality and policing reforms, but lawmakers were not in step with the demands of those protesters, said Georgia NAACP President James Woodall.
“They did not do what the people of Georgia wanted to be done, which was to take proactive steps to save the lives of people in the streets right now,” he said. “As we have experienced a level of uprisings that historically has similarity to other times throughout our history, there were several things that we could have done that just simply were not, I guess, a serious priority.”
Changes to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law failed to pass this year, as did more than a dozen bills aimed at scaling back police tactics. The Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law was cited by a Waycross prosecutor, who wrote a memo that says the actions of the men who pursued and killed the Black jogger Arbery as he ran through a neighborhood near Brunswick were justified.
Some of those proposals could reemerge when the Legislature is scheduled to convene in January. Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican and chair of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, is set to hold meetings this month to consider changes to the state’s citizen’s arrest law and to vet potential police reform bills ahead of next year’s session. The first meeting is scheduled for July 13 and a second set for July 23.
Democratic lawmakers filed several bills as the session came to a close last month, with goals to end no-knock police raids, mandate body cameras and remove protections for officers accused of misconduct.
Clayton County Democratic Rep. Sandra Scott alone filed about a half dozen bills aimed at reining in police tactics last month. Her proposals covered de-escalation training, required use of body cameras and banned the purchase of military equipment, racial profiling and civil asset forfeiture.
“There has to be accountability,” Scott said. “We have to put guidelines in and do everything we can to try to combat the problems we’re having today with police and their actions against Black Americans, No. 1, and with everyone. Because we have a big problem, and we’re just tired. We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired of the police violence on brown and Black people.”
The national conversation has largely been unfair to police officers, said Georgia Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Terry Norris. Most police just want to help their communities and often deal with low pay, high stress and unwarranted anger from citizens, he said.
“If you look at the data about police use of force, and there’s plenty of it, it doesn’t support the narrative,” Norris said. “Now, do we need to do all we can do to better prepare ourselves, our officers, train them better, update training in de-escalation, mental health crisis situations, dealing with the public? Of course we do. But law enforcement in general has gotten a bad rap through all this conversation.”
Major police reform is possible in Georgia, said House Speaker David Ralston, but the whirlwind end of the session was not the time to introduce major reforms.
“Reforming citizen’s arrest and policing reform, I think, are topics that are worthy of discussion, but you certainly don’t want to tackle issues like that in haste,” Ralston said shortly after the session resumed.
Scott said she knew her bills weren’t likely to pass after introducing them with little time left in the 2020 legislative session, but she’s ready to file them again next year.
“I knew that we were at the end of session and we didn’t have enough time to vet them because there’s so much other things going on,” she said. “Once you pass day 20, it’s hard to get a bill put up for the year.”
“I knew it was a long shot, but next year, 2021, I will be prefiling those bills so they can be at the front of the table,” she said.
Georgia’s police will be ready to respond if that happens, Norris said.
“We expect all that to come back next year, and we expect to have the appropriate rebuttals through good information about how we do things and why some of these other ideas are not proper,” he said.
As this year’s unprecedented session interrupted by a pandemic, social unrest and a staggered economy came to a close, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a historic hate crimes bill imposing additional penalties for some offenses motivated by a person’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. Also headed to the governor’s desk are bills to expand criminal record expungements and allow Glynn County residents to vote to disband their police department.
As the hate crimes bill finally seemed primed to emerge from the Senate committee that bottled it up for a year, it was saddled with an amendment to offer police officers protections against bias crimes, which Efstration said amounted to a “poison pill.” The hate crimes bill moved along after the police protections were removed and inserted into House Bill 838, which creates new charges for committing some crimes against law enforcement, firefighters or emergency medical technicians because of their occupation.
“You’re going to see that the police are subjected to violence because they’re disliked as much as any other population, if we could keep those records,” Norris said. “We had some protections, aggravated assault on a police officer and such, but we called for it, and the Legislature heard us.”
The compromise to get hate crimes legislation across the finish line left some who called for police restrictions resenting the move to give law enforcement protections instead.
“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 Georgia ACLU Executive Director Andrea Young.
Others have also raised concerns the law could actually shorten sentences for people convicted of killing police officers.
The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus has urged the governor to veto the legislation intended to protect police from being targeted, arguing the law could be used to threaten people who file complaints against police officers.
“We are more than willing to work with the governor to craft new legislation that contributes to criminal justice reform and restoring public trust with law enforcement agencies,” said caucus chair Rep. Karen Bennett, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “We are experiencing a moment in history where expectations for substantive change by elected officials are the norm. Let us grasp this moment to move Georgia forward as a ‘state too great to hate.’”