FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House voted Monday to expand the state’s hate crimes law to classify police and other emergency responders as a protected class, drawing the scorn of Black Lives Matter activists who briefly interrupted the debate.
House members sent the measure to the Senate on a 77-13 vote after a long debate. The Senate’s leader predicted the proposal would be well-received in the chamber.
Near the end of the House action, as some lawmakers were explaining their votes, activists chanting “Black Lives Matter” filed out of the gallery overlooking the House chamber.
“Those people who introduce this bill know what this bill stands for and why it is there — to give hate crime protection to law enforcement that further builds up their impunity from the law,” Chanelle Helm, a Black Lives Matter community organizer, said later.
Opponents warned that the bill could result in more serious punishment for protesters who damage property during demonstrations against police brutality.
Supporters said the measure is aimed at applying the hate crimes law to attacks that target police and other first responders simply because of the uniforms they wear.
“They’re the heroes in our society that we pay to run toward danger, while the human instinct is to run away from danger,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher, the bill’s lead sponsor. “And it’s just an absolute travesty that people would attack them simply for what they are and what they’re doing. I hope that we can send a message today that if you’re going to mess with one of our first responders, you’re going to get the full brunt of Kentucky law.”
Other supporters invoked the names of police officers and other first responders who were killed in the line of duty. Republican Rep. John Blanton of Salyersville, a retired Kentucky State Police officer, said even former police officers “carry a target” on their backs.
“This is not about one race versus another race,” he said. “This is about somebody being targeted for simply what they do — not about their skin color, but what they do for a living.”
Opponents said the hate crimes law should remain focused on people who need special protection because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. They said the law shouldn’t be expanded to cover people in a particular profession.
“We all know what this is a response to,” said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville. “It’s in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Wayne said the bill poses “false choices” between supporting first responders and the black community. He said the hate crimes law should be reserved for minority groups that historically faced oppression.
The legislation would apply to law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical crews. It would make them a protected class under a law that currently applies to crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin.
Opponents said state law already includes stiffer penalties for harming police officers. The focus should instead be on increasing pay and training for first responders, they said.
“This bill does nothing except to pander and to pretend like we’re doing something for our first responders, when in fact … it does nothing,” said Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville.
Under state law, an offender’s hate crime status can be cited by judges in denying probation at sentencing or by a parole board in denying parole.
Senate President Robert Stivers said he hadn’t reviewed the bill yet but thought it would draw support from senators.
“Look, we protect first responders,” he told reporters. “All lives do matter, and people who target them because of some unfounded belief or some concept that they should be targeted because they represent the establishment … are truly warped in their beliefs. And so it sends a statement to both that they will be protected.”
Last year, Louisiana became the first state to expand its hate crime laws to protect police, firefighters and emergency medical crews.
Kentucky is among about a dozen states considering similar legislation.
The legislation is House Bill 14.