Kemp signs police protection bill, calls surprise election-year special session

Georgia State Patrol officers monitor the tote board in June as state lawmakers approved legislation to create new protections for them. The bill makes it a “bias motivated intimidation” offense to “maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate, harass, or terrorize” a police officer, a firefighter or an emergency medical technician because of their occupation. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on a controversial bill Wednesday intended to protect police from bias crimes, which he says sends a strong message that Georgia backs law enforcement.

But on the final day of bill signing, the governor delivered a surprise announcement that he plans to call lawmakers back to fix what he says is flawed tax legislation. 

Going into Wednesday, Kemp hadn’t signaled if he would use his veto power on House Bill 838, one of the bills that passed in the final days of the 2020 session prolonged by three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kemp announced late in the day he signed the legislation, passed as part of a compromise to get a Georgia hate crimes law across the finish line. It adds stiffer penalties if someone committed a crime against a first responder, but critics point out could have some unintended legal consequences.

“During my time as Governor, I have attended the funerals of far too many law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and we must act” Kemp said in a statement. “House Bill 838 is a step forward as we work to protect those who are risking their lives to protect us.

“While some vilify, target, and attack our men and women in uniform for personal or political gain, this legislation is a clear reminder that Georgia is a state that unapologetically backs the blue,” he added.

Kemp did veto four bills by deadline day, including one that he said overstepped the Legislature’s authority to oversee state health care plan contractors

And the governor allowed a potentially flawed tax program go into effect for now, with Kemp saying he planned to call a special session to correct a procedural error he said could leave the law vulnerable to a legal challenge. The new law extends a tax break to farmers for federal disaster relief income from Hurricane Michael, and taxes rideshare companies. 

“Although I will sign House Bill 105 today, I do so with serious concern that if the bill is ever challenged, the measure may not withstand judicial scrutiny, resulting in the unraveling of the tax structures it created,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. “Our farmers, especially, cannot afford further economic hardship.” 

The move was a surprise to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican and farmer. But he said “it is an important bill and we want to definitely make sure it’s correct.”

The election-year special session, with a start date to be announced in coming weeks, might also bring “other budgetary and oversight issues” before lawmakers, the governor said. 

The bill giving police in Georgia new protections makes it a “bias motivated intimidation” offense to “maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate, harass, or terrorize” a police officer, a firefighter or an emergency medical technician because of their occupation – a protection that was briefly added to the hate crimes bill.

Both advanced as demonstrators nationally and in Georgia demanded greater police accountability and reforms.

Legal experts and some lawmakers say that the late session rush to make police a protected class produced legislation that inadvertently reduces their protection against violence

Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat and attorney, predicts Republican lawmakers will scramble to fix the unintended consequences when the next legislative session is set to start in January 2021. The law as it is could set a maximum five-year prison sentence limit if someone seriously injures or kills an officer, Jones said. Killing a police officer now can carry a life sentence or result in the death penalty.

“They know there are major problems with it, that’s why it took this long to sign it,” the attorney and Senate Minority Whip said. “Otherwise, they’d have a gigantic signing ceremony.”

House Speaker David Ralston, a staunch supporter of the hate crimes legislation, said the additional protection for police is much-needed.

“It’s disappointing that supporting law enforcement has become a partisan issue,” the Blue Ridge Republican said. “We value and stand with the men and women who wear the badge in Georgia, and House Bill 838 demonstrates that unequivocally. I’m proud to see this measure signed into law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, Georgia NAACP and Fair Fight Action criticized the new law, saying one effect will be to dissuade people from filing complaints against officers for fear of retaliation.

This wasn’t about saving the lives of police officers but scoring political points – points that ultimately endanger the lives of ALL Georgians,” The Rev. James Woodall, who is the president of the Georgia NAACP, said on Twitter. “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful.”

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, also expressed disappointment.

“The Georgia code already includes more than sufficient  protections for police officers,” she said in a statement. “HB 838 was hastily drafted as a direct swipe at Georgians participating in the Black Lives Matter protests who were asserting their constitutional rights.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.
Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.