Though Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said he knows how blessed he and his deputies are to live and work in Forsyth County, he values the importance of new bills “backing the badge” that may soon become law, should the Georgia House of Representatives — and subsequently Gov. Nathan Deal — approve them.
On Friday, Feb. 24, the Georgia Senate voted to approve four bills that support law enforcement officers across the state.
“We have incredible support from our citizens here,” he said. “I’ve worked in downtown Atlanta; I know every day how blessed I am.”
“We have to make punishments hard enough”
Senate Bill 160, the “Back the Badge Act,” which is co-sponsored by state Sen. Steve Gooch of District 51, provides for stricter sentencing and punishment for people convicted of harming police officers and also allows juveniles charged with aggravated assault with a firearm or against a police officer to be charged as an adult.
“On the national view, what we’ve seen is a drastic increase in the amount of significant violence against law enforcement officers in the last year and a half to two years,” he said. “From Louisiana to Dallas to New York … you name it. The increase has not just been in people opposing an arrest or resisting, but we’re talking about officers being shot and killed, stabbed, run over — those horrible incidents.
“The overriding concept has been that we have to make punishments hard enough that maybe we deter people, or get them to think twice, before they consider opposing a law enforcement officer.”
According to an end-of-year report from The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, in 2016, the number of law enforcement officials killed by firearms increased by 56 percent from 2015, marking the largest number of gun-related deaths since 2011.
Overall, the number of officer fatalities increased by 10 percent between 2015 and 2016.
While Forsyth has not seen high-profile injuries or deaths of deputies, other Georgia counties have witnessed, Freeman said with increasing “imported crime” — criminals who come from Atlanta or other locales with the intent of committing a crime in Forsyth County — the bill will hopefully serve as a deterrent.
“What we continually see is the suspects being from the metro area and we’re seeing that influx of violent crime,” Freeman said. “Some of it is home-grown, but the majority of what we see is a pattern of criminals coming from another jurisdiction to Forsyth, specifically with one purpose: to commit a crime.
“I think what the intent here is, on the micro level, is [this bill] gives our judges and our law enforcement officers the ability to hold [suspects] more accountable and it hopefully gives the offenders something to think twice about before they take a chance on trying to harm a police officer.”
Freeman said it’s also important to have these stricter punishments for crimes against law enforcement officers because those men and women are “the keepers of the peace.”
“We are that thin blue line between evil and good and if we allow people to oppose, assault, even kill our deputies and our law enforcement officers and we don’t hold them to a high level of accountability, then we run the risk of creating more anarchy than we [already] see in our nation,” he said. “Is it because we’re some special breed that deserves special protection? No. It’s because, simply, we are the keepers of the peace.
Expanding the definition of a peace officer
Another piece of potential legislation, SB 154, extends the offenses of aggravated battery and assault to include all peace officers — such as judges, emergency medical responders, firefighters and others — and establishes a fund that would increase the indemnification payment to families of fallen officers.
It also increases fines for those accused of battery and assault, 50 percent of which will go to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, or CJCC, a statewide agency that serves to develop criminal justice legislation and policy.
The CJCC also offers grants that help local law enforcement and county programs, such as Forsyth County’s Family Haven.
Reviewing salaries and benefits
SB 155, also co-sponsored by Dawsonville’s Gooch, creates the Local Law Enforcement Compensation Commission, a group comprised of sheriffs and other government workers that would review officers’ salaries and benefits in Georgia.
The goal, Freeman said, is to help local agencies retain the best men and women for the job.
SB 169 creates a “Back the Badge” license plate to honor law enforcement.
The four bills are currently undergoing review by House second readers, after which they may be presented to the House floor for a vote and possibly revisions.
If they pass in the House and Deal signs them, they will become law.