With passions high on all sides of the issue, the House passed a measure Wednesday that backers say would send a message that Mississippi supports police officers and other emergency personnel.
HB 645, known as the “Back the Badge Act,” passed on an 85-31 vote. It 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 had been suspended Tuesday after an amendment was offered to raise the pay of peace officers. That amendment was ruled out of order Wednesday by House Speaker Philip Gunn.
Debate continued Wednesday, with several African American and Democratic lawmakers speaking against the legislation. They argued that the Legislature has ignored racial profiling of black citizens by police.
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, tried twice unsuccessfully to amend the bill to give law enforcement officers a 10 percent raise. In speaking against the bill, Bell retold being pulled over and questioned by a police officer on Lakeland Drive in Jackson.
“To my Caucasian brothers in the audience, I know you’ve never been racially profiled,” Bell said, his voice cracking at times.
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said the bill recognizes that “these men and women that this bill is for are called to make a choice every day that you and I are not called to make” to possibly give their lives.
“This bill is not against anybody. This bill was not designed to be against you or me or anybody else. The truth is the only color that should matter is the color of the red blood that runs through all of our veins,” Gipson told his colleagues.
Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, described how an incident in her hometown of Meridian when law enforcement beat a friend of hers when they were teenagers inspired her to become an attorney.
“My vote is not going to be about about the men and women that put on the uniform. My vote is going to be about the disrespect shown to my (African American) community,” she said.
Another black member, Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, told a family story about an great uncle who was riding in a car in the 1930s through Madison County.
“They ran across this crowd of (white) folks and they said ‘Whoa, we’d better not go there,’ and they turned and went the other way. But you know what? Nobody gave chase. They put some bullets in the air and the bullets gave chase. One of the bullets hit my great uncle and killed him instantly,” Banks 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.
The speeches echoed debate from the previous day, when African American lawmakers asked why 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 Gipson then, using a phrase repeated nationally to raise awareness of black deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers.
“All lives do matter — red and yellow, black and white,” responded Gipson, who chairs the Judiciary B Committee.
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.
Rep. Jeff Hale, R-Nesbit, a trained firefighter, took issue with painting law enforcement officers as racist.
“When they put these uniforms on, they don’t see race,” Hale said. “When you put a badge on or uniform on, all you see is another human being in distress.”
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.