March 17, 2017 10:09:51 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi could double the penalties against people who intentionally harm law enforcement officers, firefighters or emergency workers, under a bill headed to the governor.
Supporters said they filed the "Back the Badge Act" in response to the killings of police officers last year in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The House passed the final version of House Bill 645 with no debate Thursday, sending it to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
The action came a day after two volunteer firefighters were struck by a vehicle and killed in the south Mississippi town of Sumrall. Several uniformed Mississippi Highway Patrol officers watched from a balcony in the House chamber during the vote.
Bryant started his career as a deputy sheriff and frequently speaks in support of law enforcement officers and other emergency responders. During his State of the State speech in January, he mentioned the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent Lee Tartt, who was killed in a February 2016 shootout during a standoff with a man holed up in a house near Iuka. Three other officers were wounded.
"Across our nation, law enforcement is under attack," Bryant said then. "Here in Mississippi, most of our citizens continue to support and respect the men and women who wear the badge and protect and serve."
Bryant is expected to sign the bill, which would become law July 1.
The bill would expand the state's existing hate crimes law, which enhances penalties for crimes committed because of a victim's race, religion, national origin or gender. "Back the Badge" originally proposed tripling the penalties for attacks on law enforcement officers, firefighters or emergency workers -- in or out of uniform. Senators changed that to double penalties, and the House accepted that change. The final version also says the bill can't be interpreted to limit the constitutional right to free speech -- an addition that addresses concerns about the possibility of people being punished for protesting police behavior.
During earlier debates, some members in both chambers raised concerns about harsh treatment of African-Americans by police officers.
Current law says aggravated assault -- a broad crime that generally covers violent attacks that don't kill a victim -- is punishable by up to 20 years in prison for most cases, or 30 years if the victim is on a list that includes law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency workers. It was not immediately clear whether the penalty would be 40 years or 60 years under "Back the Badge."