Atlanta spa shootings put spotlight on Georgia's hate crime law

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·7 min read

 

The shooting deaths of eight people, including six Asian women, in the Atlanta area have put renewed focus on Georgia’s hate crime law.

Authorities have not designated the Tuesday killings a hate crime, but said the label is still on the table. Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department officials drew criticism Wednesday for stating that the shooter told them the attacks, at three spas, were not racially motivated. The killings came amid an increased focus on violence against Asian American communities, and the FBI is involved in the case.

Activists demonstrate
Protesters outside the Gold Spa in Atlanta. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Rep. Chuck Efstration, a state legislator who sponsored the bill in 2019 and helped push for its passage the following summer, said the killing of Ahmaud Arbery inspired some legislators to change their position and support the bill after it had stalled in the state Senate. Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man, was killed by a group of white men while jogging in February 2020. Arrests were not made in the case until a video of the shooting went viral and drew public outrage over law enforcement's failure to file any charges. More than two months after Arbery’s death, the men — including a former police officer — were arrested for murder.

Related: Atlanta police say hate crime charges still possible for spa killings: 'Our investigation is looking at everything'

A Republican representing an area northeast of Atlanta, Efstration told Yahoo News that hate crimes in the state were already tracked on police reports but that the legislation allowed prosecutors to seek the legal classification for a sentencing enhancement if they deemed an action as being motivated by bias. A person could not be charged with a hate crime separately, but a district attorney could file a notice before the arraignment that they were seeking an enhanced penalty. If the person was convicted, then the same jury could consider a harsher sentence if they felt the action also qualified as a hate crime. The hate crime classification would also be taken into consideration by parole boards.

“There are certain crimes that are particularly heinous in nature where an individual or a group of people are targeted because of who they are,” Efstration said, “and those types of criminal offenses don’t only impact the victim, they impact all of society.”

The new law went into effect on July 1, 2020, shortly after being signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Brian Kemp
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Prior to the law's passage, Georgia was one of just four states without a hate crime statute on the books, after a 2000 law had been struck down as “unconstitutionally vague” by the state Supreme Court in 2004. The initial bill included the ability to seek stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by a bias against a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. In August, Kemp signed another bill into law that extended similar protections to police, a move opposed by civil rights groups. The provision was originally in the hate crime bill but was taken out and repurposed as a separate piece of legislation.

How does the law go from being signed into effect by the governor to being put into practice by police departments and prosecutors? A number of organizations in the state handle the training and take questions from law enforcement officials, from police departments up to district attorneys, but training is not directly mandated by the state.

Chris Wigginton, director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, told Yahoo News that state laws usually go into effect at the beginning of January or July, giving his organization time to flood agencies of all sizes across the state with the latest information. The center adds the new laws to the curriculum for recruits while also creating a legal update online class that’s available to officers.

“In Georgia, there’s a requirement of 20 hours annually that has to be taught [to officers] — five of those are required hours that are set forth by the state, the other 15 hours are electives that they can take,” Wigginton said.

While the legal update is not a required class, Wigginton said, the center has been pushing to get it added as a class that every officer in the state is required to take annually. “I think we will be able to hopefully get it added by the end of this year or next year,” he said.

Wigginton said the current minimum mandatory requirements are one hour of requalification with a firearm, one hour on use of force, one hour on deescalation training and two hours of community policing, which include several topics from which to choose. He added that though the legal update course isn't mandatory, he believes the number of officers who take it annually is “very, very high.”

“When we send it to the agencies, we send it to the training officer and normally the agency head, and they do a pretty good job at that point at distribution, and that prompts them to go to our online platform and look at it there as well,” Wigginton said. “The last thing you want to do as an officer is make an arrest based on something that the law has changed and you’re not knowledgeable on. That’s something we push pretty aggressively.”

Aramotherapy Spa
Aramotherapy Spa, one of three locations where deadly shootings occurred in the Atlanta area on Tuesday. (Chris Aluka Berry for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Wigginton’s group works in conjunction with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, which handles advising the state’s lawyers on new legislation. Peter Skandalakis, its executive director, told Yahoo News that while training on the law isn’t technically mandatory, lawyers in the state can be disbarred for not taking 12 hours of continued education each year, for which his organization’s training sessions qualify.

“We immediately send those new laws out to all the prosecutors,” Skandalakis said. “We then follow up with a session in which we’ll sit down at our two conferences in the summer and winter and we go over all the new laws that the Legislature passed and the governor signed.”

Skandalakis added that this year has been a little different because of COVID-19. “We still gave a law update through webinars,” he said, “so we advised them that the new statute had passed last year and [has] gone into effect. We go over the law and what the elements are. We’re a resource so if anyone runs into a situation where there’s a new law and they’re really not sure about it, they contact us and we walk them through that.”

Skandalakis said he was not aware of the hate crime designation being used in a state case yet, but noted that due to the pandemic, jury trials are only just resuming after a long shutdown. He added that his organization also trains law enforcement but that he wasn’t aware of any training specific to the hate crime law.

“When you have a statute like this, that’s pretty clear on its face and has the elements you have to prove and the method you go about proving it, it’s typical we won’t train on it by itself,” Skandalakis said. “We might put it in with how to select a jury if you might have this issue come up. We might combine it with that, but typically we’ve been able to get this out to prosecutors in a pretty good manner.”

Memorial at the site of two shootings
Flowers left in memory of the victims of the Atlanta shootings. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Nelly Miles, public affairs director for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told Yahoo News that individual agencies are responsible for seeking out training, but that they have been submitting reports on hate crimes to the GBI.

“Law enforcement agencies were already required to report hate crimes even though there wasn’t a state law,” Miles said, “so we’ve been receiving reports from law enforcement agencies based on the requirements to submit those bias reports. That would be something that’s important for the FBI, so what this new state law did is [provide] more detailed information and additional categories that have been outlined.”

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