By Stanley Dunlap, Jill Nolin | Georgia Recorder | August 4, 2020

Wednesday is the last day for Gov. Brian Kemp to decide whether to sign controversial legislation that gives police new protections against bias crimes and empowers officers to sue those who file a false complaint against them.

Speculation over whether the governor would sign the bill into law has swirled since late June when lawmakers carved the proposal out of a landmark hate crimes bill that gained bipartisan momentum following national outrage over the February killing of a Black jogger who was pursued by three white men on the streets of a Glynn County neighborhood.

The first-term Republican governor could either sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without taking any action. Legal experts and some lawmakers say that the late session rush to pass police protections produced legislation that inadvertently reduces them.

This year marks Kemp’s second round of bill signings. Last year, the governor let one county-specific bill go through without his signature. That measure called for a public referendum on the makeup of the local DeKalb County ethics board and he said at the time he would leave the matter up to voters. He also vetoed 14 measures.

The controversial police protections bill was part of a compromise to pass the hate crimes bill, which cleared the House last year and stalled in a Senate committee. The proposal comes as demonstrators nationally and here in Georgia demand greater police accountability and reforms.

“The people of Georgia need to know where the governor stands on this issue, and I hope the governor stands with the people by vetoing this bill,” said Christopher Bruce, political director for the ACLU of Georgia.

The potential conflict with existing state law – and the confusion it creates over the penalties for seriously harming a police officer – underscores the argument for vetoing the bill, Bruce said.

“The bill is poorly drafted altogether,” Bruce said. “And for this to be done at the last minute of session during the COVID crisis while you have the hate crimes bill going through, I think the Legislature just needs to take its time and really look at the type of police reforms that need to be put in place – and I don’t think this is the answer towards it.”

The bill makes it a “bias-motivated intimidation” offense to “maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate, harass, or terrorize” a police officer, a firefighter or an emergency medical technician because of their occupation.

It also allows a police officer to sue any person, group or corporation that, for example, files a false complaint against them or infringes on their civil rights.

An ardent backer of getting the bill is the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

“In these challenging times with law enforcement all over the country being challenged in all sorts of ways, it was a breath of fresh air to see those in the General Assembly that pushed for this legislation,” association executive director Terry Norris said.

On Tuesday, Fair Fight Action sent out last-minute directives urging the public to tell Kemp to veto the bill it says unfairly protects police officers.

The organization said that there are already enough protection measures for police officers and that the bill will dissuade more people from filing misconduct complaints.

“Following the violence, murders, and lack of equal justice under the law in Georgia and across the country, the most expansive police protection measures in the country are the last thing our state needs if we are going to reform our criminal justice system,” Fair Fight Action spokesman Seth Bringman said in an email. 

Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat and attorney, says the bill unintentionally creates a law that could allow someone to serve a maximum five-year prison sentence if they seriously injure or kill an officer.

Jones said he wouldn’t be surprised if Kemp signs the bill and then some legislators attempt to clean up the law when the next session resumes in January. 

He also said the bill would undo a rule that prevents a first responder from recovering money for injuries because they assume certain risks with their jobs, even when another person’s negligence caused the emergency.

“An individual who calls a first responder to their home, has to understand that there’s a possibility that they would then be sued for any negligence,” Jones said. “That will now be the law in Georgia, and it overturns over 30 years of case law in Georgia.” 

Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert, who was instrumental in getting the first responders protections added onto the legislation passed as House Bill 838, said last month that the bill does not conflict with other laws.