When Tiffany Roberts caught wind of the language in Georgia House Bill 838, her mind shot back to 2017, the year of Charlottesville violence.
Roberts, a longtime Atlanta civil rights and criminal defense attorney who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights, was reminded of the wave of oft-called Blue Lives Matter legislation in states across the country that year, drafted in response to violence against police. Measures that would help protect law enforcement in a dangerous, often thankless line of work might sound agreeable, but Roberts recalled how Georgia’s version, which didn’t make it into law, seemed structured to increase penalties on protestors and dictate how they behave. And then, last month, 2020’s pandemic-postponed legislative session brought HB 838—a bill which proponents say would offer protection against “targeting” for police officers and other first responders, similar to hate crime laws—amidst a season of historic unrest and nationwide protests rallying against systemic racism and police brutality. Roberts and other civil rights activists encourage people to be more skeptical of what they feel is little more than a tool to punish protestors—and one that’s made it to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk.
“It seems that state legislatures take up this issue every time [police are] protecting the streets,” says Roberts. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It sort of goes hand-in-hand with people who say, ‘Well, these protests make police officers less safe,’ even though all the data suggests police may make protestors less safe, because [protestors are] the ones being shot with rubber bullets. They’re the ones being arrested and thrown to the ground.”
Atlanta police union president Jason Segura reads HB 838 differently. “It doesn’t silence anyone, except those breaking the law and threatening folks, police, and citizens alike. Peaceful protesters are welcome and encouraged,” Segura, head of International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ Atlanta chapter, wrote in an email. “Why are [the bill’s detractors] working so hard to allow violence to occur against police? Violence is bad no matter who the victim, and who the perpetrator.”
How did HB 838 legislation quickly—too hastily, some argue—come to be? A recap:
The bill, originally authored by Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, began innocuously enough, weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns in America. When filed in January, the bill’s intent was to subtract a single word from the title of the Office of Public Safety Officer Support. That’s an office within the state’s Department of Public Safety that helps police and fellow emergency personnel cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas associated with public safety. Removing the “Officer” from its title, the logic went, would allow the office to provide support services and peer counseling to any entity with public safety personnel that requests it. Then came the February homicide of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, a global pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd.
In response to the fatal shooting of Arbery, a Black unarmed jogger whom three white men are charged with killing, lawmakers crafted the landmark hate crimes legislation HB 426 that included, for the first time in Georgia, protection and legal recognition of LGBTQ communities.
In late June, Senate Republicans tried to add language to HB 426’s protected classes that would have put police and other first responders under the same umbrella—an effort poisonous enough to nearly kill the bill entirely. So references to law enforcement were pulled out by Republicans and inserted as provisions into HB 838, as part of a deal with Democrats, with a goal of boosting protections for police and other first responders, per the authors. This drew the ire of groups like Roberts’ SCHR. She’s aware of similar laws in Kentucky and Louisiana, as two examples, and designated offenses in Georgia code and within certain municipalities designed to specifically protect educators and healthcare workers in hospitals. But nothing, until HB 838, that would make police and first responders a protected class under the law. She wondered why a charge like felony obstruction of law enforcement, with a typical five-year penalty in prison, wasn’t already severe enough for people convicted of violently confronting cops.
Most significantly, the HB 838 additions establish a new offense—“bias motivated intimidation” of police, firefighters, and paramedics—and allow first responders to bring a civil lawsuit against any person or group they feel has accused them of false misconduct. That latter part, as Georgia NAACP leaders insist, could deter people from filing legitimate claims against officers in the wrong. But one champion of the bill, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, has called it a necessary tool to honor “the vast majority of officers in this state [who] serve us honorably and selflessly” and to distinguish them from police who violate the public’s trust.
Segura, of the Atlanta police union, sees the bill as a safeguard, in a sense. “Nationally, police are under attack by organized groups,” Segura says. “These groups of individuals make threats directly to officers’ faces. They make threats to their families, saying, ‘I know where you live and where your daughter goes to school.’ These individuals follow police officers home, they post their addresses and phone numbers online. They call their family members, and their family members’ employers. If that happens to any American, they should absolutely be concerned, and in America they should be defended.”
Others see the bill as a muzzle for peaceful protestors and everyday citizens, in disguise.
“I don’t even know how to interpret some of [the bill’s] language,” says Mawuli Davis, a Decatur civil rights attorney and activist. “What constitutes ‘bias motivated intimidation’? I mean, is it I can’t yell at a police officer during a protest? If I see an officer doing something wrong during a course of his so-called duties, I can’t say something? Would they have attempted to prosecute the people who were recording and yelling at the [Minneapolis police] officers as they, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, laid with their knees on [Floyd’s] body in this way? It’s almost a violation of your First Amendment to even put something like this in writing.”
Despite pushback from civil rights groups and Democrats, HB 838 passed along party lines as the legislative session began to wind down June 23, barely squeaking through in the House. Three days later, with bipartisan support, Kemp signed the hate-crimes legislation, HB 426, into law during a Gold Dome ceremony that drew national headlines.
Noticeably absent from that event was Georgia’s chapter of the NAACP, which released a statement calling HB 838 “dangerous” in that it would “further create a toxic divide in our state.” Also absent was Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who has said she supports all law enforcement but feels “HB 838 is more dangerous to our community than HB 426 is good.” Meanwhile, State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, lashed out at the bill on Twitter, calling it a means of intimidating and punishing protestors. “We don’t need a bill of rights for the police,” Nguyen wrote, “especially not one that infringes on the rights of the people.”
Governor Kemp has until August 5 to sign HB 838 into law. Its effective date would come next July.
Segura says a scourge of violence in recent weeks that prompted the governor to declare a State of Emergency in Atlanta and deploy as many as 1,000 National Guard troops lends him faith that Kemp will approve the measure and not veto it. “It’s in the best interest of all citizens,” Segura says.
Roberts pointed to a potential sticking point for Kemp, first raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, that the law could actually weaken penalties for anyone convicted of intentionally killing a police officer.
As is, the minimum punishment in Georgia for murdering a first responder is life in prison. The new law, as ACLU leaders told the AJC, would muddy the waters regarding how perpetrators in such cases are charged. HB 838 would set the maximum penalty for “bias motivated intimidation” resulting in the targeted death a cop at five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, max. A legal argument in Georgia called “rule of lenity,” as the ACLU asserted, would require prosecutors to seek charges that are most favorable to defendants, meaning suspected killers could face as little as a single year in prison, with murder charges off the table.
“They’re probably numerous reasons why [Kemp] might be on the fence” in regards to signing HB 838 into law, said Roberts. “We’re hoping to God that he’s on the fence.”