Miss. Gov. signs bill doubling penalties for hate crimes against responders

A former deputy sheriff said the state needed to do more to protect responders, citing the death of two Sumrall volunteer firefighters earlier this month

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — People who commit crimes in Mississippi against law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency workers will face doubled penalties starting July 1.

Gov. Phil Bryant on Friday signed House Bill 645 , the "Back the Badge Act," meant as a response to killings of police officers last year in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Mississippi is the third state, after Louisiana and Kentucky, to enact such a "Blue Lives Matter" law.

A former deputy sheriff, Bryant said Mississippi needed to do more to protect first responders, citing the death of two Sumrall volunteer firefighters earlier this month. They were killed directing traffic in a hit-and-run by a driver whom authorities say was drunk.

"As a former law enforcement officer, I all too well understand the challenges that occur every day, when you put that badge on and you go to work," said Bryant, a Republican.

The governor said he believes the law will deter people from attacking officers.

The law expands Mississippi's existing hate crimes law, which enhances penalties for crimes committed because of a victim's race, religion, national origin or gender. The measure says it shouldn't be interpreted to limit free speech — addressing concerns about people being punished for protesting police behavior.

During earlier debates, some lawmakers warned they feared that police would use the heavy penalties as a shield to abuse black men. Others said supporters were trying to turn the national conversation away from police violence against African-Americans.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican, praised first responders for "keeping evil at bay," while Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said it was an expression of gratitude.

"In the great state of Mississippi, we not only respect those men and women who put on the badge every day and go and protect us, we celebrate your efforts, we thank you for your efforts," said Reeves, also a Republican.

Bryant also signed House Bill 1367 , which bars people from intimidating witnesses, lying under oath about their knowledge of a crime, or encouraging witnesses to lie about a crime.

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