A bill that would make police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel a protected class under Kentucky’s hate crime law passed easily through a House committee Wednesday.
State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, the sponsor of House Bill 14, said the proposal is intended to protect police and give judges more “tools” when sentencing people who attack officers.
“I just want people to know that if you’re going to harm one of our first-responders, that we’re going to give you the maximum that we can,” Bratcher said.
Bratcher, R-Louisville, pre-filed the bill in July, shortly after five police officers were killed by a gunman in Dallas. He said he was inspired by similar legislation in Louisiana.
The state’s hate crime law applies to offenses committed against a person or a person’s property because of race, color, religion, sexual orientation or national origin.
If the court determines that hate was the primary factor in a crime, a judge can prevent the offender from getting probation or another form of “non-imposition of a sentence.” A hate crime also can be a factor in consideration of parole.
During Wednesday’s hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Shawn Helbig, a member of the executive board for the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police, and Brian O’Neil, president of the Louisville Professional Fire Fighters, told lawmakers about a Kentucky firefighter and a police officer who had been killed in the line of duty.
Homicide is not among the 28 offenses that hate crimes can be applied to in Kentucky, but supporters of the bill said it’s important for officers to be protected by the hate-crime law.
“To attack a group for what they are instead of who they are, that is a clear definition of a hate crime,” Helbig said.
Opponents argued that police are different than others protected by the hate crime law because they chose to go into the profession. Including an occupation on the list of protected classes would water down the law by expanding it beyond historically oppressed minorities.
“This is not about making police officers safe,” said Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville. “This is about something else. Bottom line, there is no place for this in hate-crime legislation. Where do you stop?”
Opponents said the bill was merely symbolic, and that people who hurt officers already face more severe penalties They also suggested the state could instead offer more financial support to officers and their families.
A 2013 law requires offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole if they’re convicted of second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide of an officer or firefighter who was clearly identifiable, and 50 percent of their sentence if the officer wasn’t identifiable, instead of the usual 20 percent.
Also, killing a police officer allows prosecutors to consider pursuing the death penalty.
Bratcher, the bill’s sponsor, said that just because people choose to be a police officer doesn’t make them different from other classes of people protected by the hate-crime law.
“You don’t have to be a Christian,” Bratcher said. “I think a policeman is a policeman, a first-responder is a first-responder. 24/7.”
The committee approved the bill 15-3 and sent it to the Republican-led House.