After a long debate and a protest from Black Lives Matter members that resulted in a lawmaker being called a racist, the House passed a bill that would cover first responders under Kentucky hate crime law.
Existing 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. The bill adds first responders to that protected class.
Sponsor Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said he proposed House Bill 14 because Louisiana passed a similar law last spring. The bill in Louisiana was called the “blue lives matter” bill, but Bratcher tried to distance his bill from that language, which some members called divisive.
“You don’t know what’s in my heart, and I don’t know what’s in your heart,” Bratcher said after some members said the bill was offensive to minority communities. “But I don’t see how anyone can vote against this bill.”
Hate crime laws in Kentucky are determined by the sentencing judge. If the court determines the crime was motivated by hate, it can force an offender to spend time in jail. A hate crime can also be used in the consideration of parole.
Several members who supported the bill shared stories of first responders who had been killed. Some dedicated their votes to those officers. Of the 28 offenses covered in Kentucky’s hate crime law, homicide is not among them.
While Donna Mayfield, R-Winchester, was dedicating her vote to an officer who died in the line of duty, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted her, called her a racist and chanted as they left the gallery and were escorted out of the capitol.
Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, called the protest rude and disrespectful.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that there was a very good, civil, debate on the floor, a very good discussion and really good points raised for those for and against House Bill 14,” Hoover said. “I guess what bothered me the most was that this was an orchestrated plan by them all along.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, a protest movement that has sprung up across the country in recent years to raise awareness of race issues in the country, had come up earlier in the floor debate when some members argued that the bill was a reaction to the protest movement.
“I understand that it’s probably best for me not to talk about race, but to talk about humanity, civilization, civility,” said Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville. “Maybe that message will get across. I don’t expect a message about race to get across, not in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not in 2016, 17, 18 19.”
Supporters of the bill, which passed 77-13 with one abstention, pushed back, arguing that the bill was only being called “blue lives matter” because of people trying to create controversy.
“Let’s quit bringing race into the issue, because race divides us and we get divisive about these things. This has nothing to do with it. This has to do with the protection of those people who lay their lives on their line from the time they sign up for the rest of their lives,” said Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, himself a retired police officer.
Some members warned of unintended consequences that may arise from the bill, saying that it could result in protesters being charged with hate crimes.
“I’m concerned that House Bill 14 will give this kind of fear mongering a license to charge me with hate crimes for doing what my ancestors did during the civil rights movement — standing up for the diversity of our state and the most vulnerable of our communities,” said Attica Scott, D-Louisville, referring to an open letter from the Louisville Fraternal Order of Police written in 2015.
Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he didn’t think that was likely.
“There has to be a separate finding by a trier of fact, whether that’s a jury or a judge that the underlying crime was committed as a result of hate,” Hoover said.
In existing law there are stricter penalties for offenders who attempt to assault or kill a police officer, including the death penalty. Opponents called the bill unnecessary because of those existing protections.
“This bill does nothing except to pander and to pretend like we’re doing something for our first responders,” said Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville.
But Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, whose husband is a retired police officer, said someone would come down their driveway and spit on her husbands police cruiser every night. She said the bill was important to defend officers like him.
“They didn’t like us and they didn’t like him because of the job that he intentionally did,” Wuchner said.