FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation that would expand the state’s hate crimes law to cover attacks against police officers and other emergency responders.
The measure would make law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel a protected class under the hate crimes law. It cleared the Senate on a 33-5 vote and now goes to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. It passed the House last month.
“We are simply stating that as a society, we will no longer tolerate the attacks on these people simply because of the profession that they are in,” said Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah.
The bill broadens a law that currently applies to crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. Supporters said first responders deserve those same considerations because they can be targeted for wearing a uniform.
“When you commit those same crimes against somebody because before they go to work they put a badge on and they put a gunbelt around their waist, that’s hate, just as much as it’s hate for these other reasons,” said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill.
Some opponents called the bill a divisive response to the Black Lives Matter group and its protests against police shootings of unarmed black men across the country.
Critics included the Senate’s two African-American members — Sens. Gerald Neal of Louisville and Reginald Thomas of Lexington, both Democrats.
“I think we have to be honest about why we have this bill,” Thomas said. “We have this bill to chill and handcuff protests made by racial minorities.”
Opponents have warned that the bill could result in more serious punishment for protesters who damage property during demonstrations against police brutality.
Neal said the legislation undermines the origins of hate crimes legislation to combat violence against groups based on such factors as race.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said first responders deserve greater support for the dangers they face, but said the hate crimes expansion only amounts to a “feel-good bill.”
“If we’re going to use legislation to recognize the great job done by our men and women in uniform, then I say we do it with something that matters,” he said. “This isn’t going to be a deterrent. This will not stop it. This does not help them.”
If the bill becomes law and judges determined a hate crime occurred in an attack motivated by someone’s status as a first responder, the perpetrator could serve more of his or her sentence.
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.
State law already includes stiffer penalties for attacking police officers.
During the long debate, a couple of senators who supported the bill remembered Lexington firefighter Brenda Cowan, who was killed as she tried to assist a victim in a domestic attack.
“If you wear the uniform, you need some protection. We can give them some today,” said Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville.
In supporting the bill, Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones II, D-Pikeville, said: “These people put their lives on the line every single day for the rest of us.”
While also praising police, 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.
“Hate crimes are for who you are, not what you do,” McGarvey said. “Even if what you do is one of the most noble professions.”
Last year, Louisiana became the first state to expand its hate crime laws to protect police, firefighters and emergency medical crews. A number of states are considering similar legislation.
The legislation is House Bill 14.