Senate backs new police safety effort that some worry hurts protesters

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Senate backs new police safety effort that some worry hurts protesters

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AMERICUS: A honor guard salutes as Georgia Southwestern State University campus police officer Jody Smith is escorted into the Storm Dome for his funeral service at the university on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, in Americus. Officer Smith and Americus police officer Nicholas Ryan Smarr, who were best friends, were killed responding to a domestic dispute. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Georgia Senate approved a package of bills Friday extending protections for law enforcement officers assaulted in the line of duty, despite questions over whether some of the measures may curb Georgians’ right to protest.

The biggest, Senate Bill 160, would impose mandatory minimum prison sentences for criminals convicted of aggravated assault and aggravated battery against a public safety officer.

Dubbed as the “Back the Badge Act of 2017,” it broadens the definition of a public safety officer to include, for example, a firefighter or emergency health worker. It allows juveniles to be tried as an adult if charged with aggravated assault with a firearm or aggravated battery against a public safety officer. It creates a new felony offense for someone convicted of throwing bodily fluids on an officer.

And it increases the penalty for obstructing highways, streets, sidewalks or other public passages to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.

“I have seen first-hand the sacrifice of the men and women in the law enforcement community and what they do on our behalf,” said the bill’s sponsor, Public Safety Committee Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla. “This is a strong message (that says) we’re behind you and we support you and an attack on you is an attack on all of us.”

That message was strongly backed by Senate leaders including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who said they had made a deliberate choice to back measures designed to show full support for law enforcement officers and their families.

Several Democrats questioned whether the bill, which they called well-intentioned, went too far, given the nationwide trend toward allowing judges more discretion in sentencing. Georgia, too, has turned away from mandatory minimum sentencing as a way to save money.

“In my experience, judges take very seriously their job in protecting the law enforcement community,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, who argued the bill took that discretion away.

Others, including state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, questioned whether the bill curbed the rights of protesters to peacefully assemble.

Harper responded that it did nothing to harm protesters and “only deals with individuals who do not go through proper channels to hold a protest” such as giving notice and applying for a permit. “We do respect your right to protest, we do respect your right to rally,” Harper said, “but we ask that you do so through the proper channels.

SB 160 passed along party lines on a 40-12 vote. Similarly, the chamber also backed Senate Bill 154, which among other things would impose a new $5,000 fine of people convicted of aggravated assault or aggravated battery against officers.

Less controversial were other measures that would create a statewide commission to study local police pay (Senate Bill 155) and create a new “Back the Badge” specialty state license plate (Senate Bill 169).

All the measures now head to the state House for consideration.

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