Georgia Republicans passed an anti-defund the police bill this year. Still, other GOP proposals to stiffen penalties on unruly protesters and require new drivers to take a course on interacting with police officers failed to make it through before the session wrapped up on Wednesday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

By Jill Nolin, Stanley Dunlap | Georgia Recorder | April 1, 2021

Lawmakers considered several measures this session that critics argued were tone deaf and ignored the pleas for police reform that followed 2020’s string of high-profile shootings of Black Americans. 

By the time the ceremonial tattered papers flew shortly after midnight, legislators had backed a bill that would prohibit city and county officials from cutting their police budget by more than 5%. 

But other controversial measures – such as an expansion of gun rights and a push to educate new drivers on how to interact with police officers – failed to make it to the governor’s desk. 

“Frankly, I thought we needed to be very, very sensitive to any gun legislation,” House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters early Thursday morning when asked about the gun bill. “You know, we’re less than two weeks out from two major mass killings and so that heightens my level of sensitivity to that.”

Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas last month. Within a week, another mass shooting killed 10 people at a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store. 

Lawmakers also came together to overhaul Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which was initially cited by the south Georgia prosecutor who did not file charges in the slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery last year. 

Demonstrators took to the streets last year to call for the law’s repeal. In the end, lawmakers drastically remade the law so only business owners and out-of-jurisdiction law enforcement officers could detain someone suspected of a crime. Gov. Brian Kemp announced early this session that rewriting the law would be one of his priorities for the year. 

“I look forward to signing it into law as we continue to send a clear message that the Peach State will not tolerate sinister acts of vigilantism in our communities,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. 

Senate rejects pro-law enforcement driver education bill 

A GOP bill that instructed state agencies to develop educational materials for new drivers on the “best practices” for interacting with law enforcement passed along party lines in the House Wednesday, only to fail in the Senate. 

The measure sparked impassioned debate that critics noted was playing out at the Statehouse as the trial begins for the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, whose murder inspired a wave of protests that reached Georgia.

A visibly upset Sen. Randy Robertson, who sponsored the bill, walked out of the Senate chamber Wednesday night after lawmakers nixed the measure. 

Robertson, a Cataula Republican and former police officer, pleaded with his colleagues to reconsider the motorist education bill after it failed by a 23-26 vote. Proponents of the measure accused opponents of politicizing a proposal that they say only sought to help educate new drivers on police procedures and what are considered “best practices” when pulled over, including when driving in a remote, dimly lit area.

Robertson said the education component was an attempt to save the lives of people “who get nervous and get scared when they’re being stopped by law enforcement officers.”

“It gives them an opportunity to understand if an officer mistreats them and doesn’t observe their First, their Fourth, their Fifth Amendment rights, that they understand how they can file complaints against that officer,” Robertson said.

The bill cleared the House before returning to the Senate, where a tacked-on plan to let school districts set up traffic cameras outside of campus was also met with some GOP resistance. 

Democrats accused the bill’s supporters of putting the onus on motorists while ignoring the experiences of people of color with law enforcement. Critics also wanted the bill to spell out in the bill that the education provided should include information about the driver’s constitutional rights when stopped by law enforcement.

“The focus should be on addressing racial profiling, the use of excessive force, and other systemic issues that poison the interactions between law enforcement and the civilians,” said Rep. Erica Thomas, an Austell Democrat. “This is an unproductive way to connect with our communities that have a strained relationship with the police.”

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat, said parents in communities of color are already having difficult conversations with their children on how to interact with police.

“What parent wants to tell their child, ‘Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t put your hands inside your pocket. Don’t run. Put your hands up?’” Nguyen said. “And still – still – that might not save you.

“The reality is even if citizens do all the right things, it doesn’t guarantee that their lives won’t be unjustly taken by the hands of law enforcement, especially if you are a Black American,” she said.

Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, dismissed the criticism of the new driver education measure as being misplaced.

“It doesn’t say Black adults. It doesn’t say white adults. It doesn’t say Asian adults. It says, for all of those who take the driver training course,” Powell said. “So, this should be a benefit to everybody across all racial lines, all genders.”

GOP blocks local police cuts, which haven’t happened here

Lawmakers also backed for a final time a contentious measure that is a response to the calls to defund the police that became a rallying cry at demonstrations last summer. The measure would block cities and counties from reducing their police department budget by 5%, with a few exceptions.

Two Georgia cities – Athens and Atlanta – considered changes to how their police agencies are funded last year. Both measures failed to pass.

“By outlawing any effort to defund the police, Georgia has put a stop to the liberal cities and far-left activists trying to enact their dangerous agenda across our state,” Athens Republican Rep. Houston Gaines, who was the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote.

Democrats accused GOP lawmakers of undercutting local decision makers and bypassing a broader conversation on policing in favor of scoring quick political points.

“No matter how we vote on this bill today, the fact remains that everyone wants to live in a safe community. Everyone wants to live in a safe community and these local governments know best how to keep their community safe,” said Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat.

Anti-protest bill fails

The driver’s education program wasn’t the only criminal justice setback for Robertson on the final day of this year’s session.  

The Senate wrapped up without considering his proposal to increase criminal penalties for protesters blocking a highway, destroying monuments and causing property damage and injuring people.

Robertson defended the stiffer legal consequences as a way to discourage protestors from becoming unruly and holding local governments more accountable for being negligent if they don’t allow police officers to intervene. 

But Democrats, the ACLU of Georgia and other civil rights organizations said Robertson’s plan infringed on people’s freedom of speech and to assemble, calling it an attempt to scare away the peaceful demonstrators who have taken part in racial and social justice rallies over the last year.