Ga. lawmakers renew push for hate crimes bill, law enforcement oversight

    Demonstrators marched in Decatur last weekend to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Protests are common across Georgia and the country after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia Democrats have unveiled their plan to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system after the death of an African American in Glynn County sparked national outrage.

    The plan features a dozen measures, including a Republican-sponsored hate crimes bill that has sat dormant in a Senate committee since last year but has since gained broader support. Under the proposal, someone who commits a bias-motivated crime could face additional criminal punishment.

    Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law. One of the white men now charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s death is accused of using a racial epithet after the February shooting. Arbery’s mother has called for lawmakers to pass it.

    Arbery’s death is now often cited at protests and marches where demonstrators are pushing for fairer treatment of African Americans in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Floyd died in Minnesota after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

    Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has said he supports a hate crimes law but that he wants to strengthen it by adding data collection, uniform reporting and potentially an avenue for civil recourse. But Republican House Speaker David Ralston has cautioned against changes to a bill that narrowly cleared his chamber last year.

    And Rep. James Beverly, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said he is wary of bipartisanship being used as a “stall technique.” He called on Duncan to take up the bill immediately. Lawmakers return Monday to finish a session that was abruptly suspended in March because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

    “Let’s not use bipartisanship as a way in which to stall bills that we currently want to pass,” the Macon Democrat said during a virtual press conference held Thursday.

    A call to repeal the citizen’s arrest law at the center of the initial decision not to charge the men involved in Arbery’s death also has budding bipartisan support, with two Republicans pledging to back a bill nixing the law.

    Democrats also plan to introduce bills that would require all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, create an oversight commission for prosecutors, repeal Georgia’s “stand your ground” law and end “no-knock” warrants and chokeholds.

    “This is simply a start, but it’s an important start and an important agenda for when we resume session on Monday,” said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat.

    “These measures go to the core of combating the disparities that exist in the administration of criminal justice in Georgia,” he said. “We can no longer be content with a system that only provides for justice for some. We must work and strive to make sure that we have justice for all.”

    Any newly filed bills will face an uphill battle, since they come after a key deadline for legislation to pass at least one chamber. Trammell said they will pursue the legislative agenda “through any means available,” such as by adding the measures to bills that are already moving through the legislative process.

    “We cannot hide behind procedural rules as an excuse to delay justice for all,” Trammell said.

    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.