Kentucky Politics

The Kentucky Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would make it a crime to insult police officers and boost penalties for rioting.

Senate Bill 211 comes in reaction to racial justice protests in Louisville and across the state and country over the last year, and the bill’s advancement comes just short of the anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death, which sparked some of those demonstrations.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton, former assistant police chief and primary sponsor of the bill, said the measure was necessary to protect police officers.

“I will not apologize for passing laws to protect the people of this commonwealth, to protect the property of the business owners in this commonwealth, to protect our first responders,” Carroll said.

The bill passed out of the Senate with a vote of 22-11; it now heads to the House where lawmakers have three working days to pass it before Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period.

The bill would make it a Class B misdemeanor if someone “accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact, that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.”

It also creates new protest-related crimes, requiring anyone charged with “rioting” to be held in jail for a minimum of 48 hours and making it a Class D felony to resist arrest during a ‘riot.’”

The bill defines a riot as a public disturbance involving a group of five or more people that “by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or other government function.”

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal represents part of west Louisville, which is predominantly Black. Neal called the bill a “hammer” on his district.

“This is a backhand slap. And I resent it, I personally resent it. This is beneath this body,” Neal said. “Because you have power doesn’t make it wise to use it. Because you want to express your feeling doesn’t mean you have the answer. You don’t know what’s going on in my district.”

Carroll, who lives in Benton, a little more than 200 miles away from Louisville, said he was ashamed of the protests in Louisville and blamed Mayor Greg Fischer for allegedly ordering police to “stand down” to violent protesters.

Carroll said the “silent majority” supports his bill and that he and his family feared for their lives last summer when he said a group of protesters broke windows at Kentucky Oaks Mall in Paducah..

Local police determined the vandalism was not protest-related.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, a Democrat from Lexington, said that Carroll was trying to criminalize protected speech.

“The message he’s sending is very loud and clear: if you engage in a protest rally from now on, you do so at your own peril because we’re going to come and get you,” Thomas said.

Six Republicans joined all Democrats in voting against the bill, with many voicing opposition to criminalizing insults against police officers and the provision requiring people arrested on protest-related charges to be held in prison for at least 48 hours.

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