Politics

Lawmakers have given initial approval to a bill that would make it a hate crime to attack or target police officers and other emergency responders.

Over the summer, the measure was dubbed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill by its sponsor, Louisville Rep. Kevin Bratcher.

Shawn Helbig, a Bowling Green police sergeant, said he thinks his job has become more dangerous since he signed up 18 years ago.

“I didn’t sign up to be executed or to be killed or injured simply for wearing a uniform,” Helbig said. “Unfortunately, in the last few years we’re seeing that more and more.”

Though official numbers for 2016 aren’t available yet, preliminary statistics released by the FBI in May showed that nationally, 41 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2015, a decrease of almost 20 percent from 2014, when 51 officers were killed.

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.

Bratcher filed the bill last summer in the wake of the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, Texas. A similar law is on the books in Louisiana and the Mississippi legislature is currently considering the policy as well.

“I just think that we need to show if you’re going to attack one of our first responders, you’re going to get the full-brunt of Kentucky law. We take it very serious,” Bratcher said. “We ask men and women to run towards a problem, an accident,  while human nature asks us to run away. We need to let them know that we’re going to stand by them and we’re not going to tolerate it.”

Kentucky already has advanced penalties for those who kill police officers. Those convicted of killing a clearly identified emergency responder have to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Assaulting a police officer is a felony and prosecutors can seek the death penalty for those who kill a police officer.

Protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement packed into a committee room where the bill was presented on Tuesday.

Jamel Armstrong, a pastor from Louisville, said that the bill antagonizes Black Lives Matter activists who have spoken out against police killings of unarmed African-Americans.

“Black Lives Matter has never been against anybody, it’s actually a movement for people and against hate,” Armstrong said. “I believe that for this bill to pass, what we’re doing is we’re antagonizing and we’re saying to people of color, ‘no, you do not matter and we’ll show you how much you don’t matter by passing such a bill as this.’”

In a statement, Kate Miller, advocacy director for the ACLU of Kentucky, said that lawmakers should focus instead on how first responders can avoid unnecessarily dangerous situations and deescalate.

“We asked legislators to vote no on House Bill 14 because it pays lip service to safety and distracts us from the deeper conversations we desperately need to be having,” Miller said.

The bill will now be considered by the full House.

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