After 2020 protests, Georgia legislators take divergent approaches to policing

Protesters took to the streets of Atlanta for months in 2020 calling for changes in policing following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. The General Assembly responded in a variety of ways. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Protesters took to the streets of Atlanta for months in 2020 calling for changes in policing following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. The General Assembly responded in a variety of ways. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

For months last year, protesters took to the streets of Atlanta following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota to demand social justice and changes to policing.

Gatherings that began in daylight hours featured calls for changes to law enforcement and greater accountability in response to the deaths of Floyd — and Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia — at times became nights of violence and vandalism leading to several arrests.

Heading into Georgia’s 2021 legislative session, lawmakers took varying approaches to how best to address what they witnessed last summer — some choosing to address the root causes of the protests and others targeting the illegal actions of those who protested.

That resulted in divergent priorities among those in positions of power.

Legislation originating in the House and backed by a bipartisan group of leaders won passage to overhaul the state’s law that allows residents to arrest one another and increase the penalties for those who commit crimes against someone based on characteristics such as their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The General Assembly also passed a Republican-backed House bill that would restrict local governments from decreasing police budgets by more than 5% in one year or cumulatively across five years.

Senate Republican leadership gave priority to bills that would have increased the penalties for those arrested during protests and required drivers to learn how best to interact with police during a traffic stop. Neither measure passed this year.

“To the extent that there’s an implication that doing some positive things for social justice issues is mutually exclusive of supporting the law enforcement community — I reject that notion,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “Oftentimes we kind of have that tension, and it doesn’t need to be there.”

But Democrats in both chambers pushed back on the Republican-backed efforts. Instead, they introduced, as they do nearly every year, a wide variety of legislation that would overhaul the way Georgians are policed. Those bills didn’t get hearings.

State Rep. Sandra Scott of Rex is one of several Democratic lawmakers who file legislation each year to address racial disparities in policing in Georgia, ranging from anti-profiling legislation to bills that require additional de-escalation training.

“I filed legislation that addresses no-knock warrants, chokeholds, things like that — things that everyone knows is a problem,” Scott said. “Republicans are trying to do something to put people in jail for upholding peace and asking police to stop killing people. They’re going the total opposite way.”

Scott is referencing Senate Bill 171, legislation Cataula Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson introduced that would increase the penalties for people who commit crimes during protests. Robertson is a former police officer. The measure failed.

SB 171 would have increased the penalties for crimes such as blocking a highway, assaulting someone or damaging property if it involves groups of two or more. Opponents said the legislation violated the First Amendment by imposing limits and increased penalties on how and when Georgians can gather.

“I want any group no matter the group, I don’t care if they love Jesus or if they hate Republicans, I want them to be able to go wherever they want to go on public property and safely get their message across,” Robertson said. “What I do not want is what happened in Charlottesville, when two opposing sides ended up clashing and people got hurt and killed.”

Versions of the legislation proposed by both Republicans and Democrats have popped up in statehouses across the country with varying success.

“Since George Floyd’s death, there have been nearly 3,000 bills introduced in state legislatures addressing policing,” said Mick Bullock, spokesman with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “So far in 2021 there have been at least 2,214 bills introduced and nearly 100 have already been enacted. About 1,800 are still pending as of today.”

Maryland’s Democratic-majority General Assembly voted to repeal protections given to police through the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” and replaced it with procedures that involve residents in the disciplinary process. In the GOP-controlled Oklahoma Legislature, a new law that includes restrictions on protests also grants immunity to drivers who kill or injure those who are protesting — a provision that was included in Georgia’s version of the proposal.

Republican leaders in Georgia say they want to balance commonsense changes to police practices — such as including funding for additional training instructors for all officers who receive Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training certification — with a need to maintain peace between police and the community.

“The programs are there. They just needed the instructors and the funding to expand them,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton.

Dugan said SB 171 and Senate Bill 115 — addressing protests and traffic stops, respectively — were being responsive to the needs presented last summer.

“Even when you look at citizen’s arrest, there were situations that arose and we said, we probably need to look at this,” he said.

Citizen’s arrest, a Civil War-era law on Georgia’s books that allows residents to arrest someone who they believe committed a crime, was a statute identified by civil rights organizations immediately after the killing of Arbery, a Black Brunswick-area man who was followed by three white men and shot to death. A prosecutor initially cited the citizen’s arrest law when he suggested the men who are now charged and awaiting trial in Arbery’s killing should not be arrested.

After lawmakers came together in 2020 following Arbery’s killing to pass hate-crimes legislation, “the next logical step,” Ralston said, was to overhaul the citizen’s arrest law.

“We saw the potential for disgusting abuse of the citizen’s arrest law in the Arbery case,” Ralston said.

Legislation such as hate-crimes protection and the repeal of citizen’s arrest had been pursued by Democrats for years, Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler said. But more recent efforts, such as restricting police from using chokeholds or rubber bullets, haven’t gained any traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“It’s not surprising to me that our legislation did not get hearings,” she said. “But watch, in a few years we’ll come back, we’ll see Republicans carrying our bills. ... For now, we just have to beat back some of the more extreme things they’re trying to do.”

For example, nearly all of the General Assembly’s Democrats voted against legislation that would have required drivers to learn best practices for how to interact with police officers during a traffic stop. Democrats questioned the need for the legislation when Republican lawmakers were not also pursuing additional training for law enforcement.

Democrats in both chambers introduced several bills to overhaul the way Georgians are policed, including requiring police to file reports on every traffic stop they conduct and to train police on interacting with those who may have mental health issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Robertson, who also introduced the driver’s education bill, said he found those efforts to be “reactionary.”

“From what I saw, their goal was to just draw attention to what they perceived to be an issue within law enforcement and not really any expectation of a solution to what they perceived to be a problem,” he said.

One measure that was backed by Republican leadership in both chambers passed the General Assembly in response to national calls to “defund the police” by reallocating money from law enforcement budgets to fund services such as mental health treatment or education. Local politicians in Atlanta and Athens considered shifting law enforcement money last year but opted against it.

Ralston said there is room for the sides to come together, such as with the hate-crimes and citizen’s arrest legislation, and pass bills that repair the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.

“I’m not opposed to sitting down in a thoughtful way and looking at ways we can make some reforms to policing so that all Georgians will have confidence in the work of our law enforcement agencies, and I say that as one who is a very strong supporter of the law enforcement community, generally,” he said. “When you politicize those types of things, I’m not sure that you get the best result. But I still believe that you can have reasonable dialogue among reasonable people.”

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