Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson Credit: Mississippi House

Whose life matters?

That question was at the heart of House debate Tuesday over HB 645, known as the “Back the Badge Act.”

The proposed legislation would triple penalties for violent crimes against law enforcement officers and first responders and others, including civilian employees such as public works crews and utility workers.

Debate on the bill was suspended after an amendment was offered to raise the pay of peace officers. A ruling will have to be made by Speaker Philip Gunn before further debate, and a vote, can occur.

Race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, national origin and gender — which federal law consider to be immutable characteristics — are already protected by the state hate crimes law. Killing a police officer is currently a capital offense in Mississippi.

A bill that passed the Senate, known as the Blue Lives Matter law, would add police, firefighters and paramedics to racial and ethnic groups and others who are protected by state hate crime laws. The House version does not amend the state’s hate crimes law.

Several African American lawmakers pounced on the bill, saying that the legislation failed to address extrajudicial killings of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police.

“Do you think Black Lives Matter?” Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, asked the lawmaker handling the bill on the floor, Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton.

“All lives do matter — red and yellow, black and white,” responded Gipson, who chairs the Judiciary B Committee.

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, asked Gipson why the bill fails to address crimes that police might commit, including targeting suspects based on their race. Gipson noted that Mississippi already has an anti-hate crime law on the books.

Another African American lawmaker, Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, said the bill should address misdeeds by police because of events in Mississippi’s history, including the murders of three civil rights workers in 1963 in Neshoba County. That county’s sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, was charged with conspiracy, but not convicted, in the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

During the debate, Gipson said that “it’s not true that we don’t care about every person.” He said the bill would send a message that Mississippi will not stand for violence against police officers.

Rep. Bell later offered an amendment to the bill to give 10 percent across the board pay raises to peace officers.

“Let’s see fit to give them a pay raise since they put their lives on the line,” Bell said.

In May 2016, Louisiana’s Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a similar bill into law. Lt. Tate Reeves has said he supports “Blue Lives Matter” legislation.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.