Politics

A bill that would give hate crime protections to police officers and emergency responders has passed the Kentucky House of Representatives.

The vote on the so-called “blue lives matter” bill Monday evening sparked a lengthy debate and drew protesters to the House gallery. At one point activists shouted down the proceedings and marched out, escorted by state police.

Chanelle Helm, with Louisville’s Black Lives Matter chapter, called the legislation a racist act of white Republican representatives in the legislature.

“I think we do need to understand where racism comes from and how it was created, and how bills like this are meant to further divide,” Helm said.

The bill adds to the state’s hate crime law offenses committed against those who are — or are perceived to be — peace officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians.

The designation of “hate crime” means that judges have more discretion in denying probation and parole boards have more discretion to deny parole.

Louisville Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher, the bill’s sponsor, filed the legislation in the wake of the killings of five police officers in Dallas last June. He said during a floor speech on Monday that the debate had gotten off on “tangents.”

“You guys don’t know what’s in my heart and I don’t know what’s in your heart, but I don’t know how anybody could vote against this bill,” Bratcher said.

Bratcher has distanced himself from the unofficial title “blue lives matter,” though the bill is similar to legislation approved last year in Louisiana by the same name.

Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat from Louisville, said she was worried that the legislation would disproportionately affect minorities and protesters.

“I’m concerned that HB 14 will give this kind of fearmongering a license to charge me with a hate crime 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,” Scott said.

Kentucky already has advanced penalties for those who target police officers. Assaulting a police officer is a felony in the state, and prosecutors can seek the death penalty for those who kill a police officer.

But Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a Republican from Lexington, said the bill would give important recognition to first responders.

“The message you will send with a yes vote today is that you will not tolerate the hunting of first responders, of the men and women who will come and lay down their lives for you,” he said.

Kentucky’s hate crime law currently applies to crimes committed because of race, color, religion, sexual orientation and national origin.

The bill now heads to the state Senate.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.