Georgia hate crimes legislation winds its way to state Senate floor

    Hundreds attended a rally at the Glynn County Courthouse last month to call for justice in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery. A Georgia Senate committee Monday passed revised hate crimes legislation after removing a controversial provision for police. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

    A proposed Georgia hate crimes law seemed sunk in recent days after state senators added police officers to the ranks of the people offered protection, but the controversy apparently defused late Monday when a bipartisan group of senators agreed to shift the law enforcement provision to another bill.

    A Senate floor vote on the hate crimes bill could happen as soon as today.

    Friday, Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens inserted a provision to add police and other first responders to groups in the original bill designed to add penalties to crimes more commonly associated with bias-motivated offenses during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. On Monday, he helped announce that the Republican Senate caucus reached a compromise with lawmakers from both parties who railed against a last minute attempt to extend hate crimes protection to police.

    The provision Cowsert added in a Senate committee meeting last week prompted Republican sponsor Rep. Chuck Efstration of Dacula to complain his bill was fed a “poison pill”. 

    The Senate Rules Committee voted Monday to remove police officers and other first responders from the other protected classifications. The proposed hate crimes law sets new penalties for criminals motivated by a bias against a person’s race, religion, gender or other identity characteristics. Monday the committee added sex to the list.

    A planned compromise includes inserting legal protections for police officers into unrelated legislation intended to protect the privacy of police officers in counseling.

    House Bill 426 includes enhanced penalties for felonies committed because of bias and a new addition of five dangerous and intimidating misdemeanors such as simple assault. The amended bill also adds a requirement that law enforcement collect hate crime data closed to the public, a wrinkle from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s plan

    New language from Duncan’s bill in the hate crimes legislation on its way to the Senate floor says the information collected “shall be considered for statistical purposes only and, where no arrests are made, shall not be subject to the” Georgia Open Records Act.

    Still, the author of the police hate crimes protection amendment spoke up for the revised legislation as it escapes the Senate committee for the first time since the House handed it over in early 2019.

    “We think this is something that’s good for Georgia and good for the Senate to take the lead on,” Cowsert said.

    Adding first responders drew immediate backlash from some legislators who said it was disrespectful when much of the momentum behind the bill came from the context of violent deaths of African Americans, sometimes at the hands of police officers. 

    Republicans who pushed for adding first responders in the bill Friday argued police and firefighters are also unfairly targeted. 

    Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, grew emotional on Friday when it appeared the chance to pass hate crimes legislation this year might slip away.

    Jones said Monday work remains to get the current hate crimes legislation through the Senate and then for a second time in the House. But the latest version can give Georgia a strong hate crimes law.

    “Things will get tense at times when you have a bill that’s this important, but this is why you never cut off communication,” Jones said after Monday’s meeting.

    Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law after legislation passed in 2000 was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court four years later for being too vague. More than a few lawmakers say the need to pass hate crimes legislation took on a new urgency after recent courtroom testimony that one of Ahmaud Arbery’s accused killers muttered a racial slur after shooting him while their victim jogged in a Glynn County neighborhood in February.

    House Speaker David Ralston this month remained an outspoken champion of passing a hate crimes law before the 2020 legislative session ends. He stressed that the Senate needed to pass a bill without major changes to the version the Senate committee held for more than a year for it to have a realistic chance to become law before the General Assembly is set to return next January. 

    Last week he said failure to pass the House’s hate crimes bill in this moment of social unrest and calls for racial justice would place “a stain on this state that we can never wash away.”

    Sen. Sally Harrell said her fellow Democrats back the last-minute changes.

    “Thanks to intense pressure from critical advocacy groups like the NAACP and those of you that voiced your concerns, my Republican colleagues had a change of heart and made substantial improvements to HB 426,” she posted on Facebook.

    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.