Panel removes protections for police from Georgia’s proposed hate-crimes bill, schedules floor debate

State Sen. Bill Coswert, R-Athens.

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State Sen. Bill Coswert, R-Athens.

The Georgia Senate reversed course on hate-crimes legislation Monday, removing special protections for police officers that Republicans inserted last week in a move that infuriated backers of the bill.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, the Athens Republican who authored the change last week, announced the reversal during a Senate Rules Committee hearing late Monday.

“We’re very hopeful that the House will be satisfied that these are changes that have brought bipartisan support and did not in any way undermine the initial purposes,” he said.

Georgia is one of at least four states without such a hate-crimes law, and powerful corporate and political leaders have pressured state leaders to act. A 2000 hate-crimes law was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

House Bill 426 originally was introduced to protect people who are targeted due to characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation. It narrowly passed the House in March 2019.

Cowsert’s amendments also changed the sentencing guidelines for someone who is convicted of a hate crime. If his version of the bill passes, someone convicted of a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months for a misdemeanor or at least two years for a felony. They would also face a fine of up to $5,000.

“The data tracking is huge because it gives the opportunity to send those results off to the federal government,” said Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, D-Augusta. “That part really satisfies quite a few (stakeholders) and is integral to any hate-crimes legislation.”

Supporters of hate-crimes legislation say tracking incidents is important to understand how pervasive bias-motivated offenses are in any community.

Democrats had taken issue last week with inserting protections for police into legislation designed to protect marginalized groups based on their inherent characteristics.

Instead, protections for police and other first responders were amended into House Bill 838. Under that legislation, anyone who is found guilty of targeting a first responder — defined as a firefighter, police officer or paramedic — could face between one and five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

“We’re equally committed to passing meaningful hate-crime law and also to protecting law enforcement from unnecessary harassment, intimidation, threats and physical injury by citizens,” Cowsert said.

The legislation comes at a time when the killings of black men at the hands of white men have spurred weeks of protests across Georgia and the country calling for an end to police brutality and racial justice. Two of those high-profile deaths occurred in Georgia.

A white police officer earlier this month shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, who was black, at an Atlanta Wendy’s. Ahmaud Arbery, who was black, died in February when he was followed by three white men in the Brunswick area and shot. Arrests have been made in both killings.

Both bills will be debated on the Senate floor on Tuesday. If approved, both would have to be approved by the House later this week before they could become law.