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'Back the Badge' bill passes House after emotional debate
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(file) Officers escort one of their own
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
Associated Press

   JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi House voted Wednesday to triple the penalties for committing violence against law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency responders.

   House Bill 645 is called the "Back the Badge Act of 2017." Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said it was written in response to attacks on law enforcement officers across the nation.

   The 85-31 vote to pass the bill came only after several black representatives talked about how they or their loved ones have been racially profiled or treated harshly by the police.

   Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, said that when she was a teenager growing up in Meridian, she and some of her friends were standing around, minding their own business, when officers stopped and beat the African-American young men in their group for no reason.

   Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said when he was serving in the military in 1989, he was driving from Fort Hood, Texas, back to Mississippi and was stopped by officers on a highway in Louisiana. Hines said he wasn't speeding and after he showed his driver's license and military identification, an officer told him, "`Boy, you're out here mighty late."' Hines said his sister and a friend were also in the car, and the officer asked why he had so much luggage, then made him unpack everything on the side of the highway as mosquitoes bit him.

   "A bunch of other officers were sitting on the side of the road, waiting for me to react," Hines said.

   Rep. Christopher Bell, D-Jackson, told about being stopped on a busy road in a Jackson suburb years ago. He said an officer asked him what he was doing there, what he does for a living, why he was driving the vehicle he was driving and whether he had never been arrested.

   "I'm 25 years old and I'm out on Lakeland Drive at night and this man is standing there with his hand on gun telling me, `Do not move,"' said Bell, who had never been arrested.  "That was one of the most frightening experiences in my life."

   Rep. Jeff Hale, R-Nesbit, who is white, urged the House to support the bill. Hale has worked as a firefighter, and he said emergency responders and law enforcement officers put their lives at risk to help others.

   "We don't see race," Hale said. "We see a human being that is in distress and needs help."

   Hale also said there is tension in society about some relationships involving law enforcement officers, but the officers are not at fault.

   "I think a lot of this stems from the news media putting the twist on it the way they do," Hale said.

   Bell tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to require 10 percent pay raises for law enforcement officers and firefighters.

   The Senate has passed a similar measure, Senate Bill 2469, which is called the "Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Act." It says any crime committed against emergency personnel because of their status as police officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians would be a hate crime. State law currently doubles penalties for targeting people because of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.

   The House and Senate will exchange bills for more work.

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   Online: House Bill 645, http://bit.ly/2kppet1; and Senate Bill 2469, http://bit.ly/2kpy7QB.

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   Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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PHOTO: In this 2016 file photo, a Mississippi Highway Patrol Honor Guard carries the casket of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent James Lee Tartt to his funeral service at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Grenada, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Tartt was killed during a shootout that followed a six-hour stand off. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)